John Niyo / The Detroit News
DETROIT -- Dominik Hasek still is hungry, no question about it.
"But if it's 10 o'clock at night," he explained, "I'll have a bite of apple maybe, or something like that -- not a big piece of bread with salami and cheese."
He smiled and laughed.
"Not anymore," he said.
Depending on your perspective, that's either the warning label or the "new-and-improved" sticker affixed to the 2006-07 model of this future Hall of Fame goaltender.
Hasek, 41, two months into his third stint with the Red Wings and his 16th NHL season overall, is determined to make it the latter, even if it means dialing back on the calories in order to turn back the clock. The early returns are stirring -- Hasek is 14-4, and his 1.84 goals-against average ranks first in the league. Earlier in the season, he posted the longest shutout streak of his career, at 181 minutes, 17 seconds.
"The way I am right now is exactly the way I was back in 1998 and my best years in Buffalo," said Hasek, who showed up to training camp weighing 166 pounds, 12-14 pounds lighter than he was last season in Ottawa. "Right now, I'm 168, and I want to stay under 170 through the season. That's my goal."
The team's goal is no less weighty. Asked if he had any concerns about entrusting Hasek with the No. 1 goalie job this season, Wings coach Mike Babcock answered quickly.
"Can he stay healthy?" he said. "That's the only question I had."
And really, that's the only question anyone -- Hasek included -- has had about the two-time former league MVP since the Wings made the surprising announcement they'd signed him to a one-year contract on July 31. The Wings had pursued Ed Belfour first but always were tugged by the lure of Hasek.Ready to retire
His last two attempts at returning to the NHL ended abruptly -- acrimoniously, even -- as Hasek walked away gingerly because of injuries. In 2003-04, it was the Wings he left in the lurch, 18 months after he'd backstopped the team's '02 Stanley Cup championship run. Hasek, whose return displaced another high-priced free agent in Curtis Joseph, played in 14 games because of a groin injury before finally calling it quits in mid-February.
Last season, it was the Ottawa Senators, the team he'll face Tuesday night at Joe Louis Arena. Hasek signed with the Senators after the NHL lockout and appeared headed for a seventh Vezina Trophy as the league's top goalie, posting a 28-10-4 record with a 2.09 GAA and .925 save percentage at midseason. But he suffered another groin injury in the opening game of the Torino Olympics, playing for his native Czech Republic, and never made it back to the lineup.
A series of false starts as Hasek tried to return from the injury only made matters worse. Senators coach Bryan Murray was fed up and let it be known. When July 1 came around, the Senators went for Martin Gerber, and Hasek went looking elsewhere.
"Ottawa said no, and I understood," Hasek said. "They made a decision to move in a different direction. I was disappointed, but I was ready to retire. When I didn't sign with them, I was ready to say, 'That's it. Good-bye.' "
He was ready to say it right up until the Wings said something else. Hasek was cycling in the mountains with a friend one afternoon in early July when his cell phone rang. His agent, Ritch Winter, had told him someone wanted to talk to him. When that someone turned out to be Wings general manager Ken Holland, asking if he wanted to give it another try, Hasek was admittedly stunned -- and also excited. He told his friend to ride on without him, and he and Holland spoke for nearly half an hour.
"Once he called me," Hasek said, "I knew I was coming back."Different routine
Ah, but one little question: Would he be welcomed back?
There was all that messiness the last time with the balky groin, which put the Wings in a tough spot with Joseph, who took over and performed admirably. Joseph is long gone now, but it was natural to question if locker room resentment toward Hasek would linger.
Others wondered. Did Hasek?
"You know what? Not really," he said. "Seriously, I didn't have concerns. I know there were certain things that didn't work out the last time. I talked to some guys on the phone in the summer: Nick (Lidstrom), Cheli (Chris Chelios), Drapes (Kris Draper), Robert (Lang). I knew it would work. From the first day I came into the locker room, it has been great."
It also has been different. Hasek admits in the past he'd show up about 30 minutes before practice, drink some coffee and hang out with teammates. Now, he gets in about 75 minutes before practice and puts heat pads on his groin for 15 minutes. Then he gets a massage. Then he goes back to the hot packs. Then he stretches.
It's tedious, but it's necessary if Hasek really is going to last the season.
"He knows his body better than anyone," Wings trainer Piet Van Zant said. "But we did try to get him into a routine where if something were to happen, it wouldn't be because we weren't prepared. Dom's been great. His body is as flexible as anybody I've ever seen. The first thing I noticed when he came in was that he looked much leaner. He reminded me more of the 2002 goalie than the 2004 goalie."So far, so good
Hasek's numbers are starting to remind others of the Cup-winning goalie he once was. What began as a why-not-try-it experiment is becoming something more.
"The thing about Dom is, he's such a competitor," Holland said. "The other day in practice, he stayed out the entire 45 minutes, and somebody said to me, 'You would think he's the backup, he's working so hard.' The other thing with Dom is, you just feel that most nights, when you need that big save, he's gonna make it. And I'd like to think we can keep him healthy, and when we get into a playoff series, he can be a difference-maker."
With the Wings carrying three goaltenders to start the season -- they didn't want to risk losing rookie Joey MacDonald on the waiver wire -- Hasek didn't dress as the backup on nights when Chris Osgood started.
The plan all along was to avoid playing him on back-to-back nights.
"And we haven't deviated from it one time," said Babcock, who admittedly has been tempted as the Wings have struggled to score goals at times. "With the injuries, it would've been easy to do."
Imagine that. The goalie no one figured you could count on is transforming into a player the Wings absolutely are counting on. It's sort of the same as it used to be, but oh so different.
"They've pushed me, but they didn't have to push too hard," Hasek said. "I didn't want to be injured and struggle like when I was here last time or in Ottawa. My motivation is to win. That's why I'm enjoying this game. It doesn't matter how old you are. If you're enjoying the game, you can play at the highest level."
To play at the highest level, you have to be hungry, and you have to stay healthy. Hasek had little problem finding his hunger and satisfying it.
As for the health issue, the goalie and the team have taken extra measures to ensure that. They're working to make it work, and so far, it is. If it keeps working, look out. Pulling off this revival wouldn't be the most amazing thing Hasek ever has done, but it sure would be close.
You can reach John Niyo at firstname.lastname@example.org