For one night, it was nice to have genuine cause for celebration. The hockey season has been one long, joyless ordeal. Even the hardiest Sabres fan has to be weary of rooting for the worst team in franchise history and the distant promise of high draft picks.
Mercifully, there are only three home games left in a season when any win seemed like a gift. Saturday was a welcome change, a chance to honor Dominik Hasek and be reminded of a time when you expected them to win every night, because they had the best goalie on the planet.
I wondered how the fans would receive Hasek in First Niagara Center. Too many men have left on bad terms over the years – Pat LaFontaine twice. Reunions have been uneasy at times. Players who left for bigger money, like Michael Peca, Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, heard their share of boos.
But Hasek had returned before, when Terry Pegula had him drop the puck two years ago. Suffering Sabres fans are more eager than ever to embrace their past heroes, to let bygones be bygones and recall past triumphs.
A packed house welcomed Hasek into the Sabres Hall of Fame with a standing ovation before the game against the Lightning, shouting their appreciation to The Dominator for his nine wondrous years in a Buffalo jersey.
Hasek, who was introduced by Danny Gare and Rick Jeanneret, thanked his former teammates and said he was humbled to be in the same company with the French Connection, LaFontaine, Gare, Dale Hawerchuk, Jeanneret and others. He thanked the Pegulas and, finally, the fans.
“I can still remember coming here from the Olympics in 1998 and being greeted by so many of you,” Hasek said. “I will never forget that, and the memories of playing for such a passionate fan base here in Buffalo.”
Emotions were especially high, so soon after Ralph Wilson’s passing. After Hasek left the ice, waving his replica Hall of Fame saber, Wilson’s image appeared on the video board and the Sabres asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence.
Once again, Buffalo fans had to grapple with the contradictions in one of their greatest sports figures. The most successful men are often the most complicated and flawed. Hasek helped get Ted Nolan fired his first time around. He forced his own trade to the Red Wings in 2001.
In the end, you accept that there’s more good than bad. Like Wilson, Hasek gave Buffalo fans some of their fondest memories. He was a two-time MVP, a six-time Vezina winner. He led the Czechs to the Olympic gold medal in 1998 and dragged the Sabres to two conference finals and a Cup final from 1997-99.
Stats and honors can’t capture how it felt to see him at his peak. Hasek made the impossible save seem routine. You took him for granted after awhile. Some consider him the best goalie ever. He was the best I ever saw, perhaps the best pro athlete in Buffalo history.
During a Friday news conference, Hasek was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He was typically uncomfortable speaking in English. But this one was easy.
“I want to be remembered as a competitor who always gave the team a chance to win the game,” he said. “That’s what hockey for me was about.”
The Sabres did a lot of winning with Hasek, but never won the Stanley Cup. I can’t blame him for wanting to escape a franchise that wouldn’t go all-out to win. It seems an act of mercy to set him free from the dysfunction to win two Cups in Detroit.
“We never won here in Buffalo,” Hasek said. “It’s disappointing. But life goes on. I believe one day, Buffalo will win the Cup. It will be with some other people. This city deserves to win one day. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but one day it will happen.”
Hasek has gray hair now, white at the temples. But he still looks fit, capable of the big save. He played professionally in Russia until early 2011 and made overtures to some NHL teams last season about coming back at 48.
“I played my last game in Feburary in 2011 in Russia,” he said. “My equipment is still in the same bag. I spent 30 or 40 years playing goalie. So when I go out and have fun with my friends, I’d rather play just for fun as defenseman.”
It was when Hasek’s Heroes came up that Dom became most animated. Before leaving Buffalo in 2001, he set up his charitable foundation, which provides financial support for children from low-to-moderate income families in the city to play hockey.
Hasek wanted to make sure a part of him remained in Buffalo. At the time, I wondered if it would be one of these charities that made an initial stir and faded out. But Hasek’s Heroes is going strong. The fact that Willie O’Ree – director of the NHL’s diversity program – was here for Hasek’s induction was proof of that.
“His program is definitely growing every year,” said O’Ree, who was the first black player in NHL history. “You see the growth and kids that have been in the program three, four and five years. Some of them are in the process of going to college and it’s great.”
Hasek said he keeps in close contact with the people who run Hasek’s Heroes and comes back regularly to review its progress. He seemed more proud of the foundation than anything. Some of his greatest admirers are the ones who have profited from his big heart, same as Ralph Wilson.
“Hasek’s Heroes is one of the most important things in my life,” he said. “I tried to establish something in this city for this community, because I knew I wouldn’t be here forever. This is something that keeps me in Buffalo.”
The more time that goes by, the more Buffalo fans appreciate how good they had it when he was here.