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Hockey How Dominik Hasek’s unique style helped him dominate the NHL

Buffalo Sabres' goalie Dominik Hasek sprawls to stop a shot by Pittsburgh Penguins' center Wayne Primeau (15) with help from Sabres' defenseman Dimitri Kalinin during the first period of playoff action, April 26, 2001 at the HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York.

Reuters

Dominik Hasek used to set up a puck machine, aim it to fire just under the cross-bar and lie down in the crease. With pucks coming as fast as they could fly, Hasek would kick one of his legs in the air with perfect timing and stop the shots.

The hockey world is full of similar stories of Hasek's unique training regimen, and there's a seemingly unending highlight reel of show-stopping saves he made during his NHL career.

Call him crazy, but also call him one of the best goaltenders in history.

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"There was definitely a method to all of his madness," former NHL goaltender John Davidson said. "[He could] make saves you're not supposed to make. He was quick, but he knew how to read plays and he could find a way to get it done by twisting his body and rolling over. Whatever it took, he got it done."

A six-time Vezina Trophy winner as the top goaltender and two-time Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, Hasek was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November. On Tuesday night the Buffalo Sabres, with whom he had his best years, will retire his No. 39 before their game against the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he won the Stanley Cup.

In reflecting on Hasek's career, former coaches and goaltending analysts love to explain how "The Dominator" became an all-time great. Just about everything about his style was unconventional, but he stopped the puck better than almost anyone to ever play the position.

Playing in an era alongside Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, Hasek "stuck out like a sore thumb," according to goaltending analyst Justin Goldman of The Goalie Guild. Goldman said Hasek's "kinesthetic sense" of how to control his muscles and mind and body set him apart.

"His ability to basically contort his body amidst the speed or the unpredictability of an NHL game at that time was at another level," Goldman said. "He was able to be unconventional because he had the flexibility and he had the ability to contort and control his body in ways that no other goalie had at that time."

Hasek, a native of the Czech Republic, was able to grow into his own style of goaltending, Goldman said, because he wasn't over-coached at a young age. Whereas most goalies follow a cookie-cutter approach, Hasek knew he could be himself by knowing his body, shooters' tendencies and the flow of the game better than most.

Even if his style looked complicated, his philosophy wasn't.

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"I felt until the puck crosses the line, you still have the chance to do (something)," Hasek said before going into the Hall of Fame.

After parts of two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he was stuck behind Ed Belfour, Hasek was traded to the Sabres and began to blossom in North America. It was there that he studied under the tutelage of goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who didn't try to change Hasek's unique, all-over-the-crease style.

"Fortunately, I didn't understand English at that time, so I had no idea what was written about me in the papers what the coach is saying," Hasek said. "I had a very good goalie coach in Buffalo when I came there, Mitch Korn. He knew that my style is not bad. He said, 'You just need to work on some other things to get you better.'" Korn said he and Hasek spent a lot of time improving skating and movement and handling the puck. Fundamentally, Korn worked on Hasek's glove hand.

"Dom never closed his glove at the beginning," said Korn, who's now goaltending coach of the Washington Capitals. "He used to just cradle the puck maybe a little bit like (Henrik) Lundqvist does today, and he learned how to close his glove and to catch a puck."

More than anything, Korn said during Hall of Fame weekend, Hasek learned to be patient and make shooters react first. With his mental speed, that put him way ahead of the competition.

Of course Hasek very rarely looked in control, even if he was. Davidson, now president of the Columbus Blue Jackets and chairman of the Hall of Fame selection committee, was an analyst when Hasek broke into the league and at first couldn't understand how he played.

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Over time, Davidson learned to appreciate how Hasek dropped his stick to pick up the puck with his blocker hand or how he barrel-rolled to get from post to post.

"That style, people look at it and go, 'Man that's just kind of like water running all over the place,'" Davidson said. "It was not. Everything he did was by design. The more you studied him and watched him play, the more you saw that, you know what, he did that on purpose and for a reason, and it worked for how he played the game."

Goldman, the author of The Power Within: Discovering the Path to Elite Goaltending, believes Hasek was underrated in his athleticism and intelligence.

"He literally was a genius," Goldman said. "He loved to play chess, he was very, very competitive in chess. And if he wasn't a hockey player, he probably would've been able to score high enough on an IQ test to be in Mensa. … He was basically like a goalie genius."

Hasek didn't have to understand "kinesthetic sense" to have it. By ingraining so many habits into his goaltending, he became a Hall of Famer without over-thinking.

"It becomes such a routine and such a daily part of life that it becomes an unconscious skill," Goldman said. "It's almost like a muscle memory."

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Hasek made memories by backstopping the Sabres to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final at the tail end of his prime, during which he led the NHL in save percentage six straight years. He finished his career with 389 victories, a goals-against average of 2.20 and save percentage of .926.

By beating Canada in the 1998 Olympics and sitting atop the NHL, Hasek became an idol to many goaltenders in the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Czechs Michal Neuvirth of the Sabres and Petr Mrazek of the Red Wings, who will start in goal Tuesday night in Buffalo, are among those who looked up to him.

But neither Neuvirth nor Mrazek plays like Hasek, who Davidson referred to as a "rubber man." Certain aspects of Hasek's goaltending can be followed, but Davidson and Goldman don't believe anyone can mimic him completely.

"It's basically impossible to replicate that because his genetic biomechanics, his genetic framework or blueprint is completely unique to himself," Goldman said. "No one else is ever going to have the 'slinky for a spine' or that genetic flexibility."

The closest goalie currently in the NHL may be Jonathan Quick, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings whose movements between the pipes aren't like most of his contemporaries. But Hasek was one of a kind.

"It's almost spiritual in nature," Goldman said. "To a goaltending guru, he was a work of art. … You're just not going to see another goaltender like that."

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