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Competition again lures Hasek back

Sometimes, there's no point in beating around the bush. You see Dominik Hasek, 40 years old, sweat pouring off him after a meaningless gameday skate in late September, and you get right to the question.

"Why are you still doing it?" I blurted out Wednesday afternoon at HSBC Arena.

"There's still something to prove," Hasek said. "There is always something to prove, especially at my age. I feel there is something I can prove to some other people, and to myself."

Hasek has always been a hard man to read, a tortured genius. You couldn't be certain of his motives, whether it was his curious departure from the Sabres' 1997 playoff run, his self-orchestrated trade out of town in 2001, or his abrupt separation from the Red Wings a year later.

But he's back again, after countless feigned retirements. If Hasek says he has things to prove, that's fine with me. He's not doing it for money. When he signed with Ottawa before the lockout, the deal was for $2 million. He has made more money in hockey than he'll ever need.

Hasek was the best goalie in the world once. He has two Hart Trophies, six Vezinas. He won an Olympic gold medal. He carried the Sabres to the brink of a Stanley Cup. He doesn't have to prove he can be average and win the Cup: He did that with Detroit.

No, Hasek's motives probably run a little deeper than that. It's the same reason Michael Jordan came back to the NBA with diminished skills. Hasek is still playing hockey because there's nothing in life, aside from family, that can approach the sheer joy of competing.

"No, there's nothing else," he said. "Nothing replaces the feeling to play, to come into the locker room after winning a game. That's why. That's the reason. To play, to be in the practice and win the game, it's the best feeling in the world."

The question is how much Hasek has left. He has a history of groin trouble. That is not the ideal situation for a goaltender. His reflexes, so wondrous in his prime, aren't what they used to be. He hasn't played an NHL game since December 2003. He has played 14 NHL games since the end of the 2002 season.

John Muckler, the Ottawa general manager, has been gushing about Hasek's work ethic in training camp. Muckler has taken a huge gamble on his former Sabres goalie. He has placed the fortunes of a Stanley Cup contender in the hands of an old, fragile, emotionally volatile goalie.

Hasek's work habits are legendary. He treats every practice like it's Game Seven of the finals. It was a familiar sight Wednesday -- sweat streaming down Hasek's face after a vigorous workout. But all the practice in the world can't change the fact that he'll be 41 in January. Even the best goalie in the world can't stop time.

"Like everyone else, I'll kind of sit and watch and hope," said Senators coach Bryan Murray. "If he's anything close to what he was when he played (in Buffalo), there's no question he'll be a great goaltender in this league. But I don't know what to expect other than he'll work hard, play hard and be a good guy on the team."

Hasek doesn't seem so sure, either. He says he worked out last summer with a private coach in his native Czech Republic. A year off did him good. He wasn't happy with the way things ended in Detroit, where he came back from a brief retirement, reinjured his groin and essentially walked away after playing only 14 games.

It would be a great story if he could prove himself again, even if that means being an average NHL goalie who rides the coattails of a great team, as he did in Detroit. If he bombs, or hurts the groin again, the Senators will be in trouble. Hasek is their only proven NHL goalie. He says he didn't come back to be average.

"No, no," he said. "I want to be the best goalie in the NHL. However, I know it won't be easy. I haven't played hockey for a while. Many players haven't. I cannot say I'll be the best, or if I'll be average. We'll see. We'll find out soon."

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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