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We may never know the real reason 38-year-old goaltender Dominik Hasek returned from his yearlong retirement. Yes, he has said that he missed the game and that his battery had been recharged by 12 months of mountain biking and playing squash in his native Czech Republic. But is there more to the story? Hasek's image at home was tarnished by an ugly incident last spring in which he attacked an opponent during an in-line hockey game. A highly publicized police investigation followed, and though he wasn't charged with a crime, the onetime national hero could use some positive public relations in his homeland.
Hasek also has a lot of merchandise to move. His Dominator sportswear company will open two Motown shops this fall. In an interview with a Prague newspaper last month he said his three major priorities were looking after his family, helping the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup and seeing that "the Dominator clothing line succeeds on the North American market."
If Hasek does have ulterior motives, the Red Wings and their fans don't care. Eager to put last April's first-round washout against the Mighty Ducks behind them, everyone—with the notable exception of displaced No. 1 goaltender Curtis Joseph—has welcomed him back with open arms. Never mind that Hasek went more than a year without strapping on goalie pads. (He played forward in that Czech in-line hockey league.) Never mind that his return created a front-office headache—$16 million in salary for two netminders—that will likely linger well into the season.
The three-year, $24 million contract Joseph signed to replace Hasek in July 2002 makes him nearly impossible to trade. But that isn't the only obstacle to finding him a new home. In August he had surgery to remove bone chips in his right ankle and spent most of training camp rehabbing. Joseph didn't even join the team until late September and isn't expected to be ready to play until mid-October at the earliest.
Hasek, meanwhile, worked feverishly to rid himself of any rink rust. He played every minute of Detroit's four intrasquad games, the only goalie in camp to do so, and asked to be bombarded in shooting drills. "Last time I saw him, I could tell it had been a long grind for him," goaltending coach Jim Bedard says of bidding Hasek farewell after the Cup-winning 2002 playoffs. "Now he looks refreshed."
Hasek's job should be easier once the season begins, thanks to a vastly improved and more physical Detroit defense. Bruising 6'5", 235-pound Derian Hatcher was lured from conference rival Dallas with a five-year, $30 million free-agent contract. He and Nicklas Lidstrom, the winner of the Norris Trophy for the last three years, plus Chris Chelios, another three-time Norris winner, and talented Mathieu Schneider form an imposing blue line quartet. The return of 6'5", 225-pound Jiri Fischer, who missed most of last season with a torn left ACL, adds even more depth.
Up front there will be a new emphasis on elbow grease. Partly because skilled center Sergei Fedorov departed as a free agent and partly because the Red Wings were outworked in the postseason, coach Dave Lewis stressed during camp the importance of winning one-on-one battles. "I want to be a harder team to play against," he says. "I want to be more physical. I want to get some dirty, ugly goals."
Talented forwards such as Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk ensure that there will still be plenty of pretty ones, too. But for the first time in years there are questions about the team's depth up the middle. The loss of Fedorov and fellow free agent Igor Larionov plus the creakiness of Steve Yzerman's 38-year-old surgically repaired knees mean Zetterberg, 23, and Datsyuk, 25, will be relied on as the top two centers. If either youngster falters, the Wings could find goals difficult to come by.
Ultimately, though, it will be the man stopping tire puck, not the ones shooting it, who determines if the Cup returns to Hockeytown. Hasek has already made one shocking return. No one will be surprised if he gets the Wings back to the finals.
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