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Ron Wilson returned from Nagano with the hairdo of a death-row inmate and an aura to match. The buzz-cutting barber remains anonymous, but the person responsible for Wilson’s doomy demeanor no longer is. He’s Dominik Hasek, the world’s best goalie and Wilson’s worst nightmare. Last weekend, Hasek added to the Capitals coach’s melancholia, and his own burgeoning legend, by shutting out the Caps at the MCI Center.
The Olympics brought both Wilson and Hasek their first taste of global renown. Wilson’s notoriety came when still-unidentified members of Team USA shamed coach and country, and became the closest thing Nagano had to Tonya Harding, by breaking the legs off dorm furniture hours after losing to Hasek’s underdog Czech Republic team. Hasek gained his fame, meanwhile, by dominating the most talent-laden hockey tournament ever. After bouncing the Yanks, Hasek’s squad creamed the Canucks and routed the Russkis on the way to the gold medal. His flopping stop of a point-blank backhand from Canada’s Eric Lindros in the semifinal shootout gave the games their most exhilarating head-to-head confrontation. (Lipinski vs. Kwan was neither head-to-head nor, let’s be honest, exhilarating.)
Because he has spent the bulk of his NHL career toiling in a small market for the middling Sabres, only puckheads and Buffalonians realize that the Dominator’s deeds in Nagano weren’t flukish: Hasek, 33, had the best save statistics in the league for four years running and last season became the first goalie in 35 years to win the NHL’s Most Valuable Player Award. After a terrible start to the 1997-98 campaign, Hasek is again dominating. One vignette demonstrating Hasek’s magnificence: Caps goalies Bill Ranford and Olie Kolzig have a combined total of two shutouts this year; Hasek had sixin December, that is, the highest single-month total in NHL history. At the Marine Midland Arena, the Sabres’ new home on the shores of Lake Erie, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is piped over the public address system to celebrate Hasek’s saves.
Since the Olympics, however, a whole lot more people have been taking note of the goalie’s special gifts. On the basis of the reaction he got in D.C., a town that loves its hockey about as much as it loves high-school cross country, he’ll soon be the most popular Czech import since Budweiser.
“It’s like traveling with a rock star,” a Sabres flack said after Sunday’s game, as reporters crawled over each other to get a word with the goalie.
This wasn’t a typical hockey media horde. Not even Wayne Gretzky, for all his greatestness, ever had Voice of America goading him into joining its propaganda game. But that’s exactly what Hasek faced at his locker at the MCI Center.
“Was it especially sweet to beat Russia?” was the nugget that a VOA hack dusted off from his Cold War archives just for Hasek. The goalie proved a reluctant warrior.
“No. That was just another game. Another big game,” Hasek said calmly.
After answering all the reporters’ questions, Hasek emerged from the dressing room only to run smack into a civilian swarm every bit as large and demanding as the one he’d just humored. Each Hasekmaniac’s reason for sticking around was more personal than the last.
There were second-generation Americans with Czech roots, like Jeff Bobeck of Alexandria. Bobeck recently returned from his first trip to the Czech Republic, the land his grandfather left for America 60 years ago, and he wanted to tell Hasek personally how much the Olympics meant to him.
“Walking around Prague, the people were so warm, but I don’t speak Czech at all, but I play hockey, and so I talked about hockey with everybody there,” Bobeck said. “During the Olympics, I stayed up late to watch every game, and when they beat Canada, I called up the Czech Embassy at 2:30 in the morning and just yelled.”
Then there were the first-generation Washingtonians with Buffalo roots, like Julia Andrews, a lifelong Sabres fan who came to thank Hasek for uplifting the image of the Nickel City. Andrews waited over an hour in the hope that the star goalie would pose for pictures with her 6-and-a-half-year-old daughter, dressed up in a souvenir Hasek jersey. (Take that, Tara!)
“Thanks for the Olympics, Dominik!” Andrews yelled when the real thing walked by. “Everybody from Buffalo
And there was Jonathan Glass, a 12-year-old from Rockville, who stuck around just to tell Hasek about his plan to go out for a hockey team for the first time next year. Glass didn’t have all the right equipment yet, but during the Olympics he decided what position he would be gunning for.
“I’m going to be a goalie,” Glass said, showing off the autograph he’d just gotten from his fellow tender.
On his way to the players’ parking lot, the Caps’ Kolzig looked down the hallway at the crowd around Hasek. Nobody returned his glance.Dave McKenna