Sunday, September 24, 2006

Groin, Groin, Gone?

He joined the Red Wings for the third time this summer, and instantly he acquired words at the beginning and end of his name.

Dominik Hasek wasn’t just Dominik Hasek. He was “41 year-old Dominik Hasek with the bad groin.”

The Red Wings brought Hasek back to the team after pursuing Eddie Belfour, unsuccessfully. Too bad they missed out on Belfour. He’s only 40.

So Hasek brings with him that wealth of experience, that Stanley Cup won with the Wings in 2002, an Olympic Gold Medal, and …the most famous groin in hockey, perhaps.

Maybe you’ve never had a groin injury. But that’s okay; it’s not something you need to experience in order to appreciate its nastiness. Just the words “groin injury” cause an internal wince. I don’t need to taste head cheese to know that I don’t like it, for example. Those two words also should never be placed next to each other, either: head and cheese.

Regardless, groin injuries hurt, and goalies are susceptible to them because of the way they move their legs, like spastic cheerleaders. And Hasek, the human slinky, flops and twists and stretches and slides so much, you wonder how he even HAS a working groin anymore. Anyway, I’m assuming it’s working; don’t think I’ll bother to ask him if it does.

But Hasek, in all seriousness, has famously injured his groin, and always at inopportune times. Not that there’s ever an “opportune” time to wreck one’s groin. He did it during his second stint with the Red Wings, in 2003, and did it again last winter at the Olympic Games. In both instances, he put himself out of action for the remainder of the NHL season. The Hockey Whisperers came out again on Hasek last winter, while the rest of his Ottawa Senators teammates were battling for the Stanley Cup.

“Dom Hasek is dogging it.”

“He could play if he WANTED to.”

They were the same whispers heard when he played in Buffalo, and the Hockey Whisperers followed him to Detroit, too. Always the same refrain: Dominik Hasek won’t play until he’s absolutely, positively, 100% ready. Like that’s a bad thing. But when you’re one of the greatest goalies to ever roam the planet, and your presence can darn tootin’ mean the difference between winning and losing a playoff series, folks kinda like you around and playing. Even if you’re not at that magical 100% level.

So when the Red Wings pursued Hasek, it came as a surprise to many hockey observers, including Hasek himself. You see, he wasn’t even certain he WANTED to play this season after enduring the slings and arrows in Ottawa. But when his agent, Rich Winter, told him Detroit was on the line, Hasek decided he did indeed want to play.

“When they tell me Detroit was interested, I said to get something done,” Hasek recalled last month about the July signing. “I loved Detroit when I played there.”

Four years ago, Hasek became the third different Wings goalie to win the Stanley Cup in the six seasons between 1997 and 2002

And Detroit loved him. The first time. We tend to do that here, if you win a Stanley Cup minding the net. In 2002, Dominik Hasek was the bee’s knees. In 2003, though, he was more like a mosquito.

Joseph was about as thrilled to see Hasek return as a high school kid is to see his parents come home early while he’s throwing a party.

Hasek retired after that Cup, making good on the threat he made during the season and the playoffs: if the Red Wings win, he’s going out on top. The Stanley Cup had been Hasek’s white whale, and once slain, there were no more Moby Dicks out there for him. Fine. The fans chanted for him to come back at the team’s parade, but his decision was steadfast. Again, fine. The Red Wings, never at a loss for a buck, went out and signed Curtis Joseph that summer. Once again, fine. Then Hasek announced after one season that he’d like to come back and play, and wouldn’t it be swell if it was for the Red Wings?

Not so fine.

Hasek’s return in the fall of 2003, with GM Ken Holland’s blessing, was somewhere on the level of New Coke in terms of good ideas. Joseph and the team was stinging from a first round knockout the previous spring, and now here comes Hasek, giving the Red Wings more money tied up into two goaltenders as some teams had amongst their entire roster.

Joseph was about as thrilled to see Hasek return as a high school kid is to see his parents come home early while he’s throwing a party. The two expensive netminders barely spoke to each other. Their relationship was as cold as the Joe Louis Arena ice. And teammates could see the awkwardness. Even hockey players.

But perhaps the blessing in disguise came when Hasek’s tender groin went “pop” on him early in the season. That removed the cancer that was spreading in the Red Wings lockerroom. He played in just 14 games that 2003/04 season. But again, the Hockey Whisperers came out. They looked crosseyed at Hasek, who announced late in the season that he would not be available to the Red Wings in any capacity beyond “goalie in street clothes.” Too soft, they said. Unwilling to play through pain.

Hasek signed with the Senators during the lockout, and that appeared to be it for him in hockey, let alone in Detroit. He played brilliantly last season before the Olympic debacle. Then after more whispers, he was ready to retire. Ready except for when Holland called, contract in one hand, Ben Gay in the other. Or whatever you put on funny groins nowadays.

Dominik Hasek and his delicate groin, both of which will turn 42 in January, intend on minding the Red Wings net for about 50 of the team’s 82 games this season. Then they plan on being in net for every one of the Red Wings’ playoff games.

Just don’t blow bubblegum around Ken Holland this season. If it pops, he’s liable to think it’s Hasek’s groin.

There IS precedent, after all.

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