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HASEK BACK AT EASE ON ICE AFTER CZECHING OUT SUPERSTARDOM IN HOMELAND

Dominik Hasek now has a small idea of what it was like to be Elvis Presley or the Beatles at the height of their popularity.

The Buffalo Sabres goaltender discovered this past summer that he has become a focal point of the national joy the Czech Republic feels about its national hockey team winning the championship at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in February.

"Because of the gold medal at the Olympics, I never felt so much attention," Hasek said with a touch of disbelief in his voice. "Anywhere I went it was crazy. The people knew me before, but because of the Olympics it was 10 times bigger. I've never seen anything like it."

Teammate and fellow countryman Richard Smehlik added, "I think he's the most popular person in the Czech Republic right now."

Hasek, a two-time NHL MVP, was brilliant in leading the Czechs to the gold in Nagano, posting a 0.97 goals-against average in six games. Hasek and the rest of the team were guests at a huge public rally in Prague immediately following the tournament, but he didn't return to the Czech Republic for an extended period until after the Sabres finished their playoff run in June.

Once he crossed the Atlantic, Hasek discovered what mega-celebrities go through in their day-to-day lives. For example, Hasek gave up on trying to go out to eat or to run up to the store for clothes.

"No chance," he said. "Around my property and my house, I felt very comfortable. I have a wall up around it, so that was good. When I was with my friends I also felt comfortable. My only problem was when I went away with my family. We'd get in my car, and people would come all the time with cameras. I didn't feel very comfortable, so we went back home."

Hasek didn't spend the offseason traveling on the Czech version of the "rubber-chicken" banquet circuit. Instead he concentrated on events with a sports connection.

"I did more tennis tournaments, road races, soccer tournaments, small events like that with friends," he said. "I enjoy that more. There were only three or four banquets."

Smehlik got a chance to see Hasek's popularity level -- as well as the impact of the Olympic win -- first-hand when the two played in a special exhibition game in Prague. The August contest featured the Czech Olympic team going up against an all-star squad. "People were happy to see him, and he was giving autographs to everyone," Smehlik said. "People were pumped up for the game in Prague. We sold all the tickets (close to 10,000) in like 20 minutes. I think if we had played in a 40,000-seat place, we would have sold that out. It (the gold-medal win) was great for hockey in the Czech Republic."

A blemish on Hasek's summer came in an Aug. 22 traffic accident. He did $3,000 in damage to his Ferrari after failing to make a curve on a road near his hometown of Pardubice.

"The curve was almost 180 degrees, and I was going 40 or 50 miles per hour, so I was just going too fast," he said. "It was in the evening, and I couldn't see it very well, and it was at a place that I had never seen before."

Hasek suffered no injuries in the accident. He was fined $30 for speeding. The goalie also took a Breathalyzer test after the mishap; Czech law requires such a test after accidents. Hasek did not have any alcohol in his system at the time of the event, said the Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.

Otherwise, Hasek's summer was relatively quiet. It was only when he went out in public that he realized how his level of fame had increased so dramatically, and how that fame was a mixed blessing.

"It (the public attention) isn't why I play hockey. I play because I enjoy it," he said. "Sometimes it is nice, but when you are out with your family it can bother you."

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