A crescent moon was hanging high above the 16th-century clock tower, looking as sharp and silvery as the blade of a skate, and it seemed the perfect ornament to decorate the eastern sky that night. It was June 29, the hands in the tower were nearing 10 o'clock, and the moon was glowing above the surreal scene unfolding in the middle of the Czech city of Pardubice, some 60 miles east of Prague. There, above the pop and flash of the fireworks, the rockets rising and exploding just outside Pernštýn Square; above the standing lamps and the strings of lights hung along the square's Renaissance gables; and above the 7,000 moiling souls who had made the pilgrimage to the square and were swaying and singing to the music blaring from the giant speakers—"We are the champions"—and staring up in teary adulation, a man stood on a temporary stage, looking at times self-conscious and uneasy as he waved to the crowd with a large teddy bear someone had given him.
They began chanting, over and over, "Dominik! Dominik!"
Dominik Hasek had come home again, to the city where he was born and raised, just as he'd come back after every season in which he had tended goal for the Buffalo Sabres. Only this year there was a heightened fervor around him wherever he went. Indeed, Hasek returned to the Czech Republic and was embraced as a secular saint. "Dominik is the national hero," says Frank Musil, a boyhood teammate of Hasek's in Pardubice (pronounced PAR-dah-bit-sah) who plays with the Edmonton Oilers. "He's the statue, the symbol of the Republic."
Three weeks before he clambered onto that stage, Hasek had finished the most fulfilling of his eight seasons in the NHL despite a raggedy start—a dismal 3.35 goals-against average in his first 20 games—that had Buffalo fans booing him. He came out of the swoon in December, with six shutouts, tying the league record for the most ever in one month. Through the rest of the season he played brilliantly, stopping shots at every point of the compass and leading the Sabres to their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals since 1979-80. The Washington Capitals then beat them in six games, but Hasek had again proved himself to be the best goalie on earth. In 1996-97 he became the first goaltender since Jacques Plante in '61-62 to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Last season he not only won the Vezina Trophy—the bauble awarded to the league's top net-minder—for the fourth time in five years but also won the Hart for the second consecutive year, an unprecedented honor for a goalie.
From Prague to Pardubice, however, Czechs cared not an icy hoot about those NHL awards. The thousands who swarmed into the old town square had not come to celebrate Hasek's adventures in North America. No, Hasek had secured his place in the Republic's hagiology at the Olympics in Nagano, where he led the Czechs to a 4-1 victory over the U.S., a 2-1 shoot-out win over Canada and finally a 1-0 blanking of the Russians to take the gold medal.
Hasek's stand in the shoot-out against Canada, in which he stopped all five shots, galvanized his homeland. When the shoot-out began, Hasek's mother, Marie, was sitting in front of the TV in the family's second-floor apartment on cobblestoned Jindřišská Street in downtown Parbudice. She became so anxious that she left the flat and started walking the stairs—down to the first floor, up to the third, then back down to the first. "I couldn't hear what was happening," Marie says. "All I heard were people screaming from the other apartments." Then her daughter, also named Marie, came bursting out the door: "Mom, come back! We won!"
When Hasek's mother left her building later that day, she found a sign stuck to the green wooden front door: HASEK NENÍ ČLOVĚK, HASEK JE BŮH! (Hasek is not a human being, Hasek is God!)
That was not the first time Hasek had been proclaimed a deity at home, nor would it be the last. The words posted on the door follow him throughout the Republic, and as he came upon that stage in June, they were written on signs and echoed in the night across the square: "Hasek je Bůh! Dominik je Bůh!" While the man is clearly uncomfortable being referred to as God—"I get so confused when they call me that," he says. "I don't know what to say"—he understands the impact that the Olympic victory had on a nation still struggling to emerge from the long shadows of Communist dictatorship. "You have no idea how these people felt during the Olympics and in winning the gold," he says. "It's not like we are in Russia, but there are still problems. In this difficult time, all of a sudden came the Olympics and something to celebrate."
Hasek had not been to Pardubice since before the Games. So, back in his old haunt on that June night, he stood in the lights and returned the cheers and the salutes. "It's absolutely wonderful what you have done for me," he told the crowd. "I can't explain the way I feel. I'm very happy that we could win the gold medal for our country. It was the best hockey moment in my entire life."
It was a moment for which Hasek had been preparing for most of his life—since he was a four-year-old boy defending the kitchen door as if it were a net, flailing a small hockey stick and blocking tennis balls slapped at him by his maternal grandfather, Anthony Tyřl. Hasek's love of sports came to him naturally through his father, Jan, a soccer player in his youth, and through his mother, who played tennis. Jan Hasek worked in the state uranium mines 100 miles from Pardubice, coming home only on weekends, but he encouraged his oldest son to play hockey. One winter, when Dominik was six, Jan took him to a hockey tryout, screwing blades to the bottom of the boy's shoes, and Dominik played well in the net against a team of nine-year-olds. The hockey prodigy was born, and he never wanted to do anything other than tend goal. "I never tried to score," Hasek says. "I always asked someone to try to score against me."