DOMINATOR HAS DOUBTS, WHICH IS A GOOD THING

Tonight, for the first time in 13 years, Dominik Hasek will not come home to his wife and kids after an NHL regular-season home game. Instead, he will return to an empty Birmingham apartment, half a world away from his family. When it’s time to cook dinner, he says, “I will make chicken and potatoes.”

And what else, he is asked?

“Chicken and potatoes,” he says.

Meet a man on a mission, fighting age, living alone, cooking for one, his family still back in the Czech Republic, where Hasek himself had planned to stay until a few months ago, when the hockey termites began chewing on the foundation of his retirement plans.

Now he is doing the opposite of what he said he’d do a year ago, the opposite of what some people think he should do, and, truth be told, the opposite of what his body may tell him he is capable of.

“Is there doubt?” the goalie says, when asked if he can return to his famous form at age 38. “There is always doubt. You never know if you can be the same tomorrow.

“All my life, to be honest, I was never fully confident. Never in my life. There was always something to prove.”

Never confident? The Dominator? The guy who carried Buffalo all those years? The guy who, at the 1998 Olympics, shut down the entire world? That guy? Never fully confident?

“The doubt,” he says, “is what motivates you.”

Hmm.

We may have to rename him the “Doubtinator.”

The quest for the Cup

Now, if you think Hasek has doubts, just poke around the nervous corners of Red Wings nation. Hasek’s performance is, and will be, the story of the year. Will the Dominator prove to be Don Quixote, tilting at windmills with a big fat goalie stick, doing what athletes in other sports have vainly tried — from Michael Jordan in basketball to George Foreman in boxing — convinced that some piece of the old magic is still there?

“I did not want to be 50,” Hasek says, “and thinking that I could have had another Stanley Cup.”

Then again, most hockey fans remember when one was enough. They remember Hasek soaked in champagne after the 2002 finals, his pointy frame and jutting cheekbones suggesting a man who had nearly starved to death to earn the big wet smile on his face. At that moment, he had everything he wanted: an Olympic gold medal, lots of money and finally, finally, the Stanley Cup.

He said good-bye. Why not end there?

“Because,” he says, “there is nothing better than to win.”

Except to win again.

And so, despite days last year in which he slept as long as he wanted, despite a home life full of family dinners, despite a return to a country where he is not just a local hero, but a national one — despite all that, he asked his agent to call the Red Wings. See if they were still interested.

What if they hadn’t been? Would he have returned to play for the archrival but goalie-desperate Colorado Avalanche?

“That would have been hard,” he says, laughing. “Let’s just say I’m glad the Red Wings were interested. They saved me from that decision.”

The three-headed monster

In return, Hasek forced the Wings into a decision of their own. By retaking the starting goaltender’s job, he rendered Curtis Joseph expendable. But at $8 million a year, expendable does not equal tradable.

So Hasek now sits two lockers away from Joseph, separated by backup goalie Manny Legace, an uncomfortable situation made all the worse by the knowledge that Hasek’s previous decision, to quit, is the reason Joseph is there. When you talk to Hasek about it, his voice lowers, as if speaking at a funeral parlor, but he gives no quarter.

“We haven’t talked too much,” he says. “We shook hands. We both know the difficulty of the situation. I had hoped this problem would have been solved before training camp, but it is the way it is.

“From my experience, I know I need to play a lot of games. And Curtis, he feels probably the same way. Of course, I would be more glad if there were only two goalies. But management has to deal with this.”

Bottom line: I’m back. Where’s my mask?

During the Cup run in 2002, Hasek was inundated with questions about what he would do if he finally won a title. His answer became stock: “I do not want to even think about that now.”

These days, when asked if he might tarnish a perfect ending with a less-than-championship comeback, he oozes into a familiar answer: “I do not want to even think about that now.”

But everyone else will. He is the story of the season. A man on a mission, living alone, cooking his one meal, fully focused. He is out on the cliff’s edge, below him a valley, above him, glorious sky. And tonight, as he takes the big leap, fans will wonder: Does he still have his old wings? And do we still have ours?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show”3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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