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HASEK'S FUTURE RANKS HIGH ON LIST OF ALL-STAR QUESTIONS

Dominik Hasek will be the starting goaltender for the World Team this weekend in the 51st NHL All-Star Game. It will be his sixth appearance. That much, we know.

Hasek flew with the Buffalo Sabres into Western New York after the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night to pick up his family. Hasek, his wife and kids were scheduled to fly into Denver early Friday. That much we know.

The Dominator will be asked repeatedly this weekend whether this will be his last all-star game, which essentially is the same as asking whether this will be his last NHL season. He will smile, shrug his shoulders and respond politely. That much, we know.

What we won't know is the answer.

Now, with the SuperSkills competition set for tonight (about 9:30) and the All-Star game set for 2:30 p.m. Sunday, one must consider that this is the last time Hasek will represent the Sabres on a stage so large. Hasek has flopped around the topic about his future for months, covered all inquiries post-to-post.

Lately, he has sent mixed messages about his future, hinting during a national conference call that he might want to help the Czech Republic defend the goal medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City while saying little about his plans in the NHL. He might retire but train in the Czech Republic and participate in the 2002 Games.

On the Olympics: "The Olympics in Salt Lake City are going to be something really special, and I never said I don't want to play in that. If that's still possible, I want to play there."

On his NHL future: "There won't be anything set until the season is over. And after the season, I will sit down with my wife and the organization, I will make some decisions."

Hasek, the Sabres' only representative, will likely play the first period Sunday before giving way to Philadelphia's Roman Cechmanek, Hasek's backup in the '98 Games. Rookie Evgeni Nabokov is the third goalie for the World Team. North American goalies are Phoenix' Sean Burke, New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Colorado's Patrick Roy.

Hasek will get his share of attention this weekend, but the cameras will be zoomed on Pittsburgh Penguins owner-center Mario Lemieux. Super Mario will be playing in his first all-star game since 1997, when he retired after leading the league in scoring. He came out of retirement this season and has dominated for more than a month. He has been named captain of the North American team and the favorite to win the MVP award.

This will be the third straight year for the World vs. North America, a format that excludes several of the NHL's best players. A third of the league is from overseas, making it easier for Europeans to make the team and more difficult for North Americans.

"I liked the old format, with the Eastern Conference against the Western," Hasek said. "I think it is better. You play the best players, the biggest stars, even if maybe some teams might not be represented in the All-Star game."

The All-Star game generally has had small television audiences when compared to the other major sports, but the league and networks are expecting more viewers this season because the Lemieux factor. The game will be aired locally on Chs. 5 and 7. Comedic actor Denis Leary will serve as ABC's guest color commentator for the final two periods Sunday.

The game itself means nothing. More than anything, the weekend represents a few days of fun for the players and a chance for general managers to schmooze, talk about old times and consider trades. Will Sabres center Michael Peca be dealt this weekend? It's very unlikely, but deals are often seeded or completed during all-star weekend.

Hasek has dominated the SuperSkills competition. He has allowed only two goals on 24 breakaways in the four years, winning or tying for the individual crown all four times, and he twice finished as the top goalie overall. Other individual events in the SuperSkills are puck-control relay, fastest skater, hardest shot, shooting accuracy and pass and score.

Hasek, voted as a starter by fans, has won five Vezina Trophies as the league's top goalie and two Hart Trophies as the league's top player. He helped the Sabres reach the Stanley Cup finals two years ago. His contribution to hockey in Western New York over the last seven years has been well documented.

The Sabres have the option whether to pick up his salary for $9.5 million next season if Hasek decides he wants to come back for another season in Buffalo. It's still possible, although improbable, the Sabres will trade him before the March 13 deadline unless they are certain he's not coming back.

"I want to only be focused on the season and the playoffs," he said. "So you won't hear anything else from me."

Hasek turned 36 on Monday. Where will he be when he turns 37?

That much, we don't know.

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