No, he said. He would not go onstage. He would stand near it. He would stand in front of it. But he would not go up on it. Superstition. No stages.
And Dominik Hasek would not budge.
So the reporters in the Joe Louis Arena news conference had to leave their seats and swarm to encircle him at ground level. Half of them ended up on the very stage that Hasek refused to ascend, poking cameras over his back and tape recorders over his head. It was a hot, uncomfortable crush. Silly, really. But the message was clear:
He’d gotten this far doing it his way.
He’s not changing now.
“One day I will take the stage,” promised Hasek, 37, the oldest man on the Red Wings to never win a Stanley Cup, “but not while we are still playing. There is still one more win we must get.”
See the man with the stage fright? He is your story of the year in hockey, or at least the big story within the big story, the burning center of this fiery Detroit nucleus that could explode tonight after Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena. Nearly everyone on the Wings is trying to get back to a Stanley Cup.
Hasek — the most profound difference since Detroit last hoisted the trophy — is trying to get there for the first and maybe only time in his life.
You think you can’t wait for a victory tonight? There is no overstating what it means to Dominik Hasek. Remember, this is a guy who is on a postage stamp in his native Czech Republic, whose mother once found a sign on her front door that read “HASEK IS NOT HUMAN! HASEK IS GOD!” after he led his nation to a gold medal in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. This is a guy who served in the Czech army and drove to Prague one night to witness the fall of the communist government, a guy who has a warehouse of awards hardware as the NHL’s best goalie, and a trophy that made him the first goalie in 35 years to be named the MVP of the whole league. This is a man who has more money, fame and attention than a gaggle of pop stars — and yet with all that, he is still too superstitious to do the simplest thing, lest he ruin his chance for the Stanley Cup?
See the man with the stage fright?
“I don’t want to get too excited,” Hasek said, sounding like a man who was getting awfully excited. “Until the last win, I cannot get too excited. I cannot think about what the Cup will mean. I cannot say how I will feel or what I will do. I do not want to get . . .”
Yes, yes. We know. Too excited.
The buzz in Hockeytown
Which is funny, considering that when Hasek was acquired last summer, “too excited” was an apt description for this town. Whenever a new star joins this team, it always makes news.
But when Hasek arrived, it was the Red Wings themselves who called one another giddily, like the teens at the start of “Bye Bye Birdie.” “Can you believe it? We got Hasek!” Brendan Shanahan said at the time that the Wings had landed a goalie who could steal games when the rest of the team didn’t play well enough to win. That meant something to a franchise that has long had talent, but couldn’t always close the deal. Suddenly, a safety net had been hung beneath the Wings, a rock wall erected behind them, a battering ram placed beside them.
And as the playoffs have moved along, they played that way, and so did he.
Hasek pitched two shutouts to close the Colorado series. That should tell you something right there. He pitched another shutout against Carolina in Game 4 Monday night in Raleigh, N.C., and while he didn’t have to face that many shots, the ones he thwarted were memorable, including an out-of-the-net sprawl that snared the puck away from a streaking Erik Cole.
But what is just as important as what Hasek has done in these playoffs is what he hasn’t done. There have been no meltdowns. No off nights. Patrick Roy had a couple. Arturs Irbe, too. Brent Johnson from St. Louis as well.
Hasek? The worst you could say was that he wasn’t at his best in the first two games of this long playoff run, the now amusing defeats to Vancouver.
And remember what Steve Yzerman said heading in to Game 3? “Before the series is over, you’re going to say, ‘That Dom, he’s an unbelievable goalie. He played fantastic for Detroit.’ “
The Captain was prophetic.
And that kind of support, both verbal and on the ice, is a big part of why Hasek is wearing a Detroit uniform in the first place.
“When I went to choose a team last year,” he said, “I chose Detroit because of two reasons. I knew this team had a good chance to be the best in the NHL. And I wanted to go to a place where people liked hockey.”
Boy, did he have his geography right.
Now it’s true, Hasek has driven many Wings fan to scream, particularly when he flops wildly — or worse, when he strays from the net. Hasek has a bit of the Happy Wanderer in him. Suddenly, he’s 10 feet out, trying to play the puck.
“Sometimes people do say to me, ‘Why are you doing that?’ ” he admitted. “But I say it is only instinct. I am not thinking about it. I enjoy playing the puck, but I don’t do it because I enjoy it. I do it because I think it is the best play, and it helps maybe my teammates from getting hit in the boards.”
Of course not. You’ll be screaming when he does it again tonight.
The final chapter?
So be it. We know how fans go crazy. But what about the goaltender himself? If the Wings do close it out tonight, how does Hasek let loose? He has been so controlled all year. He has been overly critical when the team lost a few games. He buries himself in his workouts, taking most practices at game-level intensity. He comes in to practice even on off days. And he recoils from any talk of happiness or celebration as if he might break out in hives.
“Do you ever take time to enjoy the journey?” Hasek was asked.
He frowned. “I am enjoying this time; however, I am saying it is always about the win. The success is only if you win the Cup. If we don’t win the final game, I cannot say it was fun or a success.”
So there is one more victory before his personal dam can burst. No one knows if Hasek will hang it up after this is over. He goes running from the question like a kid from a bumblebee.
But even if he should come back, nothing will match the moment he is about to undertake. He knows it. It is behind those intense eyes, and the stick he slaps on the ice like a judge’s gavel.
He is 37. He is winding down his career. He is on his third NHL team, in his second country, in his second language, in his best possible chance. He does not want to get too excited. But the following is entirely possible:
If the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup tonight, the man with the stage fright, Dominik Hasek, who has made a season out of keeping his feet on the ground, may, in the end, leap the highest of them all.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.