With the temperatures soaring to 30 degrees in the Czech capital these days, ice hockey is probably the furthest thing from many peoples' minds, mopping their foreheads at work, ticking off the days before their holidays start. All of the year's big tournaments have wrapped up and the Czechs didn't do too well in any: at the Ice Hockey World Championship in May they struggled through three losses before finally giving up the ghost. Likewise, this year was the first in a while that saw no Czechs win North America's Stanley Cup. True, at least there a good number of them had a fighting chance, including one world-famous goalie whose nickname is again in the news. It is practically summer but one question has wiggled its way into the papers: will the Dominator retire or will he be back?
The Dominator, of course, is none other than legendary ice hockey goalie Dominik Hasek, who at 42 is still going strong. 42! Very few other goalies played into their 40s (exceptions being Ed Belfour and past legends like Jacques Plante, Tony Esposito, and Gerry Cheevers), and even less finished their careers on top. Even the great Patrick Roy called it a day a good few years earlier, at the age of around 38; as did Grant Fuhr; the New York Islanders Billy Smith was a year shy at 39. Not Hasek. This year the goalie returned to excellent form and helped his Detroit Red Wings enormously, giving them a big postseason boost. Every other day just a few weeks ago there were photos in all the Czech papers showing Hasek sprawled on the ice, stealing goals out of the air like he has done so many times in the past. Now, fans are naturally wondering: will he return for a final season?
Will it be a letdown or one last effort to win? Let's recap:
Nine years ago Hasek was the backbone of the Czech Olympic team that clinched the gold medal in Japan the first year NHL players took part. I still have video somewhere of that tournament even if I no longer have a machine that can play it. In short, Hasek was unstoppable in '98 and no one here will ever forget it.
Then, in 2002, Hasek finally won hockey's most prestigious grail, the elusive Stanley Cup. Following such success you can only wonder what's still left to win?
Maybe, just maybe, Hasek will consider ending his career quietly, announcing he's decided to hang up the skates and the mask. Return to the Czech Republic with his family and play a little golf. No one could say a single word of complaint. On the other hand, he did that before and then... came back. So, conventional wisdom says this time he stays in for one final chance.
The Detroit fans? It's pretty much a given that most of them will welcome Hasek back. Just days ago they voted him the team's most valuable player in this year's playoffs, so it's hard to see them grumbling. So what if Hasek is 43 the next time the team fights for the Cup? The fans know most other goalies won't be around doing what he's doing when they're his age. Rest assured they appreciate the effort it takes. After all, Detroit is a city also known as "hockeytown", a city where fans throw octopuses, or octopi, on the ice. Yes, octopi, for good luck. It's a strange tradition. The tentacles sort of symbolise strangling the last gasp out of opponents. Intense.
So count me in as one of the many who'll be thrilled if Hasek gives it one more shot. I'm hoping to see a tiny octopus land behind his net just before he hoists up the Stanley Cup. Next spring, in Detroit.
Note: This Letter from Prague was prepared on June 14th, 2007. A day later Dominik Hasek stated in an interview for Mlada Fronta Dnes that indeed he would like to come back. He will now negotiate with the Red Wings to play next season.
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