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How Not to Do a Banner Ceremony

Hasek event a huge disappointment

Just a few days before Dominik Hasek night here in Buffalo, Anaheim enshrined Teemu Selanne into their rafters with a ceremony extravaganza which was almost over the top.

Then this past weekend, the Los Angeles Kings did the same for their hall of famer, Rob Blake, who at one time had left that organization under bitter circumstances, but is now back in good graces. The ceremony there was short, poignant and done with LA flair.

But here in Buffalo, the long anticipated banner ceremony for who is arguably the greatest Sabre ever, goaltender Dominik Hasek, went down with such a thud, it left many observers scratching their heads.

Not all of Hasek’s tenure here in Buffalo is remembered with warmth and fuzziness. He quit on the team. Twice. In the 1997 Stanley Cup playoffs against Ottawa, following a magical run to the Northeast Division title in the first season inside their new arena, Hasek announced that he could no longer play, citing a mysterious groin injury. He left the netminding duties to his backup Steve Shields, who was awful during the regular season and untested in the playoffs. Shields stole the show and Buffalo made it to the second round that year. Following that run Hasek announced that he would rather not play under coach Ted Nolan, instantly embroiling himself into a behind the scenes ownership struggle.

He did the same after Buffalo’s 7th game home playoff loss in 2001 against Pittsburgh, racing for the exit for good following the devastating loss in overtime. A year later, he held the Stanley Cup aloft in Detroit, proclaiming, “I am, and always will be, a Red Wing forever.”

His physical assault on the late hockey journalist Jim Kelley, crossing a line between athlete and media which is sacrosanct. All forgotten? Maybe.

Things got so bad here that by the 1997-98 season, the Sabres game day events crew had to pipe in fake cheers into the arena to drown out the boos when the starting lineup were announced and Hasek’s name was called.

So what changed?

The 1998 XVIII Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, that’s what.

Dominik Hasek and his team stole the show in the ice hockey event, winning the gold medal for the Czech Republic. Many local fans stayed up in the wee hours to watch the games live; Hasek wore his Buffalo Sabres heart on his sleeve on the world stage, and returned to Buffalo to a hero’s welcome. The Sabres feted him (and Czech and Sabres teammate Richard Smehlik) with an elaborate ceremony. At last week’s press conference in Buffalo, Hasek made a point of mentioning that event as one of his greatest Buffalo memories.

Juxtapose all the Hasek drama against the incredible achievements in Buffalo—234 wins, 34 playoff wins, a .926 save percentage, all the trophies and awards, and eventual induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Giving the ultimate honor to Hasek—retiring his number and raising it to the rafters at First Niagara Center, was a no brainer.

So cue up to how the ceremony should have been staged...Sabres owners Kim and Terry Pegula at center ice, broadcast legend Rick Jeanneret at the emcee lectern, Hasek’s wife Alena, two children Michael and Dominika brimming with pride. Joining Hasek would be members of those teams from 1997...and 1999...and 2001, all wearing their red and black jerseys of that era. Players such as Brad May and Michael Peca and Martin Biron wouldn’t have had to travel far; a simple ride down the press elevator or a walk across the skybridge from HarborCenter would have been all that was needed. Then the procession...the banner carried onto the ice by the four surviving members of the “banner club”...Rene Robert, Danny Gare, Gilbert Perreault and Pat LaFontaine. Except that two of those men were missing. And one has to wonder if, thanks to yet another round of Sabres office politics, will we ever be graced with the presence of LaFontaine again.

The ceremony went nothing like it should have. No family members. No players. No ownership or management representation. Just an awkward looking Hasek, standing alone at the lectern and saying all the right things. The ovation was a warm one. The banner music dramatic, and thankfully the banner was actually raised and not simply dropped from the rafters as has been done on some previous occasions.

And just like that it was over. If you were at that game and expecting video vignettes of career highlights, from Nagano, or those highlight reel saves, you were disappointed. What you did see were two vintage commercials starring Hasek and promoting Adelphia Power Link. A brutal reminder of a failed criminal corporation which almost cost Buffalo its team.

At the conference Hasek shared a story which had never been revealed before. Brett Hull and Hasek, forever linked in the 1999 “No Goal” debacle. Once joined together as teammates on the 2001-02 Cup squad in Detroit, the two never discussed that goal, until the night Detroit won it all. In the champagne soaked celebration, Hull admitted to Hasek that had Buffalo prevailed in that game 6, he was convinced that Buffalo would have gone on to win Game 7 and claim the Stanley Cup.

Hull’s prognostication to Hasek’s greatness—perhaps the ultimate honor of them all.

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