HASEK OUT FOR SEASON; CUP CHASE FALLS TO CUJOGOALIE’S TROUBLESOME GROIN ENDS RED WINGS’ $6-MILLION GAMBLE

That thump you just heard was the sound of a city falling to its knees and begging Curtis Joseph to forgive and forget.

Or maybe it was Mike Ilitch fainting.

Truth is, there were many things going bump in Hockeytown on Tuesday after Red Wings goaltender Dominik Hasek announced that the Grand Experiment was over, that his groin was not improving, that he was done playing hockey this year.

“That’s it. My groin, it cannot handle it,” Hasek said after skating at Joe Louis Arena. “It’s very sad, but it’s the way it is. Today, it was just to be one more time with my teammates on the ice.”

Hmm. That’s the first time a farewell lap was ever taken during practice.

But that’s Hasek, a thoroughbred — some might say a diva — who will not take the stage if the performance can’t be perfect. His groin was not perfect. So the show gets canceled.

And no one should be surprised.

This was a huge gamble right from the start, a $6-million gamble by Ilitch, who, with general manager Ken Holland and coach Dave Lewis, couldn’t resist the idea of Hasek emerging from retirement in the Czech Republic to lead the Wings back to the Stanley Cup. The fact that he would turn 39 during the season did not scare them, although it should have. The fact that he might join some other team shouldn’t have scared them, but it did.

So they signed him, even as they held their breath, and then they turned to Joseph with the look of a Porsche driver who just tested a Maserati. Curtis, with his $8-million salary, was the odd man out. For months, the Wings tried to trade him. He played in the minors. He sat on the bench. Then he played to
“showcase” himself.

And now they ask him to go all the way back to the beginning, to the day before Hasek signed on again, to believe that the Red Wings believe in him and to lead them to the promised land.

Uh . . . please?

The season’s best trade

Wait a minute. I think I saw this episode of “The Brady Bunch.” This is the one where Marcia gets hit in the nose with the football, and she has this ugly swelling, and the cute boy who asked her to the dance changes his mind because she’s no longer pretty, and then the swelling goes down, and Marcia is pretty again, and the cute guy comes back around — but Marcia is smarter and she dumps him for the nerd who always liked her for her.

Whew. Good thing Joseph never joined the nerds. The best move the Red Wings made all season is the one they never executed.

“There were some (trade) calls in December, and then things heated up during Christmastime,” Holland said, “but by that point, Dominik was already hurt and Curtis was playing, so we held off.”

As it turned out, the temporary became permanent. Hasek says the groin “not only didn’t get better, it got worse.” The Wings can do nothing but trust him.

No. I take that back. They can do something else. They can get angry. And privately, I assure you they are. Remember, this is the team of Steve “Glue Me Together And I’ll Play” Yzerman. Privately, I am sure some Wings personnel wonder whether Hasek is truly beyond repair, or whether he just realizes he’s not the goalie he once was. According to Lewis, Hasek “may go back to the Czech Republic for a few weeks.”

Meanwhile, according to Holland, that’s not the only return Hasek will be making.

“Are you going to pay him his entire $6-million salary for this year?” I asked the GM.

He paused. A long pause.

“All I’m going to say is that we’re going to get some relief.”

Which means Hasek has either agreed to a pay reduction, or the Wings will demand one. If there’s one thing the Ilitch crew has shown, it’s that it does not like paying for players whose injuries or recoveries are remotely suspect. The fact that Hasek announced this Tuesday, out of the blue — “We thought we’d come back from the All-Star break and he’d resume practicing,” Lewis said
— shows that management was thrown for a loop, and this management doesn’t appreciate those kind of surprises.

“It was,” Holland said, “a very disappointing outcome.”

The top dog now

Meanwhile, what matters most to Wings fans is what comes next. Joseph will be buoyed no doubt by the disappearance of Hasek. The job is his. The distraction is gone. That’s the good news.

The bad news is his record is only 13-9-2, with a 2.48 goals-against average. That’s OK, but it’s not stellar. Optimists will say he has done darn well considering all he had to put up with off the ice. And that may be true. Joseph’s family has been stuck in limbo in Toronto, waiting for the trade shoe to drop. Uncertainty has never been an asset in sports. Maybe all this will help him stop pucks.

But no matter what happens, what a truly bizarre circle this was. Joseph arrives as the new king, he gets replaced by the old king, he bites his lip, his teammates tell him to hang in there, then the old king proves to be, well, old, and once again, Joseph is the chosen one.

Would you blame him if he were cynical?

“What did he say when you told him?” I asked Lewis.

“He was calm and collected,” Lewis said. “He just sort of shrugged and said,
‘Let’s go.’ “

Which is what Wings fans want to hear. Signing Hasek was mostly about the past. From today, this team needs to think about the future. Hasek, whose contract is up this year, says he plans a return next season.

“I’ll be back,” he said, but Arnold Schwarzenegger said that, too, and even he found a new line of work.

Meanwhile, Joseph gets the thumbs-up, the slap on the back, the “go out there and get ’em, kid.” Maybe it’s a good thing goalies wear masks, so we can’t see him rolling his eyes.

“Can the Wings win the Cup with Curtis?” I asked Lewis.

“Certainly,” he said.

Dom who?

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). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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