Buffalo Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley got the call on his cell phone, on the golf course and spent the rest of the July afternoon in a puzzled daze. Team captain Mike Peca received the news through a team official and hoped it was a teammate playing a joke. What they heard was that Dominik Hasek--their star goalie and the most dominating force in hockey today--was about to announce he would retire at the end of this NHL season.
Neither player is completely over the shock. Following Wayne Gretzky's departure at the end of last season, the goalie who changed the way the game was played is preparing to do the same. No individual player matches Hasek's ability to alter the course of a game, or an entire season. No other goalie plays with the same theatrical flair, rejoicing in his unorthodox puck-stopping techniques and redefining the highlight-tape save.
But this is it. After winning three straight Vezina Trophies as the top goalie in the league--only Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante have won four in a row--and five in the last six years, Hasek, 34, is ready to leave the game while still playing at the top of his ability. He has won the league's MVP award two of the last three years but says he will leave NHL glory for the comfort of his native Czech Republic, which he led to a surprising Olympic gold medal in 1998, nine months from now. Whether he will leave the ice holding the Stanley Cup is one of hockey's most compelling questions as the 1999-2000 season opens tonight.
"I just spend so much time in hockey," Hasek said last week. "I spent 10 years in the NHL. I spend nine years playing in the Czech Republic. I feel good, but I feel it's time to change my life and move on to something different.
"I made a decision with my wife and also people in the organization--ownership and the general manager. I think it was best to make my decision in summertime so there won't be the distractions."
His reasons are no different than those cited by other top athletes calling it quits: Age and injury have crept up on him, he wants to spend more time with his family, he is ready for a new challenge after living from rink to rink all these years. Hasek is opening sporting good stores back home and will be active in other sports business ventures. It's unlikely that Hasek will be able to earn anything near the $7 million salary he will make this season, and he is walking away from two additional years on his Sabres contract, the last worth $9 million.
His decision startled many coaches and players and caught virtually the entire league by surprise. Most figured Hasek would land one more big contract. Everyone figured he would stick around at least a few years longer to take a run at the record books and a Stanley Cup, the one prize that has eluded him.
"Oh yeah, I was surprised he announced it," said Detroit Red Wings Coach Scotty Bowman, who resides in Buffalo and has seen as much hockey this century as anyone. "I don't know if it's in stone; I guess he can change his mind. The last three years he's been dominating with his record. He carried that team right to the sixth game [of the Stanley Cup finals] with three periods of overtime."
Last season, those three overtime periods ended in the biggest disappointment of Hasek's career--Brett Hull's controversial title-winning goal in Game 6. Hasek said he is over that, and laughed when he saw Hull on TV recently sitting in the front row of a televised wrestling event.
It seems nothing much fazes Hasek these days. He recovered quickly from Aug. 19 hernia surgery, returning for preseason games.
Hasek said the reaction from fans in Buffalo has been nothing but supportive, with few questioning that he would be around beyond this season.
"We believe it's a serious issue, and it can be a sensitive one," Peca said. "You don't want to question the integrity of the decision he made. It's a tough decision to make, especially when he's still at the peak of his performance and his earning potential is still incredibly high. It's tough to walk away from those two things, but he seems ready to do it.
"We might have some fun with it once in a while, but I think it's important for everybody to look at it as a great window of opportunity and we have to capitalize on something special."
This season, everything feels special for Hasek. When he joined his teammates at training camp, he couldn't help thinking it would be the last time. It will be a recurring theme all season as he visits each city and says goodbye to friends around North America.
He said he will not play back home and has no desire to be a coach or general manager. A year from now, he may crave hockey. A few years from now, he might succumb to the pressure to represent his country once again in the Olympics. The future is certain for no one. For now, an end to his NHL career is.
"It will be my last season, and I don't know how I'm going to feel in the future," Hasek said. "If I don't play hockey for a year, maybe I feel like I want to. . . . But I know this is going to be my last season, and I don't know how it's going to feel to not play hockey for eight or 10 months."
The fans in Buffalo don't want to think about life without Hasek. Woolley and Peca can't imagine not having him standing behind them, and fans will miss his flip-flopping, stick-dropping, skate-saving ways.
CAPTION: Buffalo Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek, winner of five Vezina trophies in the past six years, is calling it quits after this season. "I just spend so much time in hockey," he says. "I spent 10 years in the NHL. I spend nine years playing in the Czech Republic. I feel good, but I feel it's time to change my life and move on to something different."