He took off the mask nearly 13 months ago — the same night he hoisted the Stanley Cup — and he hasn’t worn it since. The only hockey he’s played has been the kind your kids play, with roller wheels. He sleeps at home. No hotels. The “post” now means the mail. And the only crease he’s minded is the one in his billfold.
But Dominik Hasek, 38, wants back in the NHL after a Year of Living Quietly. And what are the Red Wings supposed to do? Say no?
“My batteries are recharged,” Hasek said Tuesday, speaking from the Czech Republic, after announcing he’ll return to the Wings, thanks to an $8-million option the team exercised. “I have lived an active life since I retired. . . . I feel I am in good shape, even though I didn’t play hockey. . . . My fire is back. I want to play.”
Let’s call this what it is, OK? A leap of faith. Faith that Hasek’s skills have not faded in a year spent opening clothing stores, faith that the hunger which inspired him to win his first Stanley Cup will be there to win a second, faith that the man the Wings will be giving up on, Curtis Joseph, won’t prove to be a better netminder for someone else than Hasek is for Detroit, faith that Joseph will agree to all this in the first place, since he has a no-trade clause that could really muck up the works.
A leap of faith. That’s what it is. And a surefire case of “be careful what you wish for.” When Hasek retired, Wings fans wanted Cujo. When Cujo faltered last year, Wings fans dreamed of Hasek.
Now they have both.
But not for long.
“I know my decision unfortunately affects other players,” Hasek admitted.
“However, my desire is to play for the Detroit Red Wings. That is my goal and nothing else.”
In other words, tough break, Curtis. How’s your luggage situation?
Wings couldn’t say no to Dom
Now, a few questions for Hasek, things the Wings, as his employers, have a right to know.
1. What kind of shape are you in?
“In the wintertime, I played squash or tennis two or three times a week. I often play soccer with my friends, so I was active three or four times a week.”
Hmm. Two or three. Three or four. Squash or soccer. Sounds good. On the other hand, I know guys at the health club who can say the same thing.
2. Can you promise you won’t change your mind again and retire midseason?
“Of course I can say that or I wouldn’t be having a press conference. . . . If I made the decision, then I want to be helpful to my teammates. I want to play at the same level I played at when I left.”
Hmm. Good answer. Then again, who doesn’t want to play at the level they played when they left?
3. Are you concerned that your skills may have eroded and that you won’t be the Dominik Hasek of old?
“Don’t even tell me that! I don’t even want to think about it. I will work hard. I want to be the Dominator like I used to.”
That puts him in good company — Dom, a couple of dozen teammates, a few million Red Wings fans, and a handful of very nervous front office people.
Not that the last group had much choice. In the parlance of “The Hollywood Squares,” general manager Ken Holland took Hasek to block. It’s not just that the Red Wings wanted him. It’s that they don’t want anyone else to have him. If they didn’t pick up his option, he could have signed anywhere — say, oh, Colorado? And then what?
Instead, they now have two star goalies, each earning $8 million a year. What were the Wings supposed to do? It’s David Lee Roth wanting back into Van Halen. It’s Sean Connery wanting to reclaim the James Bond role.
If Eddie Murphy wanted to bump Jimmy Fallon on “Saturday Night Live,” could they really say, “No thanks”?
Ball’s in Cujo’s court now
That, of course, doesn’t make it fair to Jimmy Fallon. Or, in this case, Curtis Joseph. He came to Detroit to win a Cup. Now, he’ll be asked to give up his no-trade clause and join another team. If I were he, I wouldn’t do it without conditions — such as, you trade me to a contender, and you throw in some extra money to boot.
“We’re in a weakened position no matter what,” Holland admitted, when I suggested that other teams might play hardball with the Wings, knowing they needed to trade Joseph and that the market was tight for $8-million players.
Meanwhile, Hasek is like an inverted Internet stock; the question is, how much future is behind him? I know he said his skills are good. But he’ll be 39 in January. Patrick Roy said he was done last month — and he’s 37. And remember, the first thing to go on aging athletes is quickness. Reflexes. Michael Jordan might be the greatest hoop star ever, but even he turned into a jump shooter at the end.
“Look at Mario Lemieux,” Holland told me. “He came back.”
Yes, but Lemieux was never a speed demon. His star shines with strength, skill, shooting, passing and size. Goaltending is a different animal altogether.
Of course, Joseph isn’t much younger than Hasek. Just two years. And he wasn’t exactly a superstar in his one season here — or in the four playoff games he got to see.
“Did you watch the Wings get eliminated this year?” someone asked Hasek.
“I saw highlights,” he said. “Unfortunately, the players couldn’t score the goals.”
Couldn’t score the goals? Hmm. You mean it wasn’t the goaltending?
Well. We’re about to find out. It’s not cynical to ask yourself why an athlete would come out of retirement. Sometimes it’s passion for the game (see Jordan comeback No. 1). Sometimes it’s boredom (see Jordan comeback No. 2). Sometimes it’s to overcome the odds (see Lemieux). And sometimes it’s for nothing but the money (see Dennis Rodman or any retired boxer).
What is it for Hasek? Who can say? We never knew what was going on behind that mask before. Maybe he’ll be even better than he was in 2002. Like I said, it’s a leap of faith.
Ah, well. At least it’s never dull in Hockeytown. Dom’s coming back. Steve Yzerman will battle through another season. Igor Larionov, the oldest player in hockey, might return. And don’t tell anyone, but I heard Gordie Howe was making a phone call. . . .
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).