Hasek's return to Detroit paying off in playoffs

DETROIT -- A season ago in the first round of the playoffs, there were more than a few quiet little smirks and knowing nods in and around the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room.

The object of their mild derision was hundreds of miles away in the Ottawa Senators dressing room. His name was Dominik Hasek and those around the Detroit Red Wings knew firsthand the kind of high drama that was unfolding in Ottawa, where Hasek was recovering from an adductor injury sustained in the first game of the Olympics.

The "Will he come back?" or "Is he done?" debate had taken on a life of its own as the playoffs began, and as time went on proved to be more than a small distraction for the Senators. In Detroit, the upshot of the quiet commentary was, "Poor saps. Been there, done that."

Hasek never played a minute during last season's playoffs for Ottawa, and even though GM John Muckler floated the idea that Hasek might return to Ottawa this season, coach Bryan Murray made it clear early on what he thought of that: Thanks, but no thanks.

As the summer progressed, however, events unfolded that would ultimately lead to one of the most curious (if not greatest) comeback stories in recent pro sports -- the return of Hasek to the Red Wings and the return of the Red Wings to Stanley Cup contention.

Having been knocked out of last season's playoffs in the first round by the eighth-seed Edmonton Oilers, the Detroit Red Wings were in desperate need of an upgrade in goal.

There was Martin Gerber, but he was too expensive.

They looked at acquiring Evgeni Nabokov from San Jose, but he was also expensive at $5 million a year and would have cost either a young roster player or prospect, neither of which the Wings were willing to part with.

There was Ed Belfour, coming off a miserable season in Toronto. The Wings had Belfour in for a physical and it looked like GM Ken Holland might pull the trigger on the deal. But Belfour's wonky back, and more than significant personal baggage, made him hesitate.

And, in his hesitation, Holland thought about the other goalie out there, the one who'd helped the Wings to their last Stanley Cup in 2002: the enigmatic Hasek.

That Cup win, the last for the Wings, had been followed by Hasek's sudden return from retirement in the summer of 2003. It created an ugly situation in the Wings dressing room with Curtis Joseph, Manny Legace and Hasek all vying for the starter's role, a situation that resolved itself, in part, when Hasek pulled the chute after 14 games, saying he was too hurt to play. When he walked out of the dressing room doors, there wouldn't have been a betting man around who would have wagered on Hasek's return.

Not that the return didn't involve much soul-searching and due diligence on the part of Holland. Before he made the move, Holland set up a conference call with former coach and now consultant Scotty Bowman, assistant GM Jim Nill, senior vice president and former GM Jim Devellano and recently retired captain Steve Yzerman. Then, he talked to some of his veteran players, including Kris Draper and Robert Lang.

"We went around and around and around and around and around," Devellano acknowledged. "And at the end of the day, we were doubtful about both Hasek and Belfour."

"Why were we doubtful? You know why we were doubtful," Devellano said, citing the age and potential for physical breakdown plus the other more personal issues that dogged both men. At the end of the day, we were of no help to Kenny simply because we did not have an answer. And when he did sign Hasek, we all kind of looked at him like he had three heads."

The economic risk in signing Hasek was modest. Holland told him he'd have to play for cheap -- $750,000 cheap -- with a boatload of incentives based on how deep the Wings went in the playoffs. It was a marked difference from Hasek's last contract that saw him receive $9 million.

But the risk wasn't in the salary, but in the chemistry.

What was the potential for Hasek to come in and once again upset the dressing room apple cart? Just how far would the Red Wings go with backup Chris Osgood if Hasek went down in a heap as he did in Ottawa? What if Hasek stayed healthy and simply wasn't good anymore?

In the end, Hasek, who turned 42 in late January, took a line from an old Tom Petty song, "Most of the things I worry about never happen anyway."

The Red Wings say there hasn't been a moment of awkwardness. Guess a 2.05 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in the regular season takes a lot of awkward out of the equation.

Recalled Draper: "Basically, after Dom signed, he called me just kind of asking about the guys here, because obviously there was a pretty big turnover from 2002, and just asking about the guys in the locker room and the mood of the dressing room and all that. And the one thing he said is how excited he was to be back and playing for the Detroit Red Wings. I thought that was pretty classy of him to call."

Watch Hasek in this postseason and there is more than a bit of the surreal surrounding the native of the Czech Republic, who is still a few pounds above his bean-pole playing weight of 160 pounds; optional skates, morning skates, every day he is on the ice, bemoaning when teammates score on him in warmups or practice.

"To have him back now, the way he carries himself, the confidence that he has in himself, the confidence that he gives us as a hockey club, has been unbelievable in this postseason," Draper said Saturday as the Wings prepare for Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Sunday night against the Anaheim Ducks.

In Game 1, Hasek continued his curious morphing back into the Dominik Hasek of old by turning aside 31 of 32 shots, many through traffic.

"He's a good goalie. Made some big stops," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said after Game 1.

In winning four straight games just as the playoffs start to ramp into the most pressure-packed situations, Hasek has allowed just four goals on the last 111 shots he's faced.

Devellano shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "Hey, who knew?"

"Did we think he would play like this? I don't think so," Devellano said. "He so calm. And he's so quietly confident. Not arrogant. But quietly confident."

Much has been written about how this version of the Red Wings is different from the team that has failed to get past the second round of the playoffs since the 2002 Cup win.Of all the changes the team has gone through, none looms larger now than the reacquisition of Hasek. Like a safe's tumblers clicking into place, the plan has worked far better than anyone might have dared imagine when Holland made the call.

"I made a decision [to retire back in 2002] because I felt I don't want to play. I came back because I felt I wanted to prove myself something and I can help this team to win," Hasek said Saturday. "People make decisions and I don't have any regrets and I feel great to be back right now."

When he was first called by Holland, Hasek acknowledged surprise, but the decision to return was made quickly.

"That's a great opportunity," Hasek said. "I knew right away that I wanted to come back. I've already said many times I was very glad when he called me and I was excited."

Not that everyone involved hasn't had to work at it. Detroit coach Mike Babcock has kept Hasek from working back-to-back days. Hasek has been diligent about keeping up treatment on his body, especially stretching exercises to keep his groin limber. He hasn't missed a day with the trainers in seven months, goaltending consultant Jim Bedard said.

"It's not rocket science. He's 42 years old. He has to take care of himself," Bedard said.

"What amazes me is how mentally strong he is," Bedard added. "After Day 1 it just didn't' matter. I never even thought about all that stuff, how he left, what terms he left under. It doesn't matter. Like Chelly [Chris Chelios] says, he knows how to close."

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.