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    Thursday, February 19, 1998

    Dominator hungers for gold

    By STEVE SIMMONS -- At The Olympics

      On the bench, as the clock wound down, Ivan Hlinka grabbed his assistant coach, Slavomir Lener, and the two hugged and danced and jumped with glee.
     On the ice, just a few seconds later, the players from the Czech Republic were celebrating wildly, grabbing, hugging, high-fiving everywhere.
      Everyone celebrating the victory over Team USA. Everyone except Dominik Hasek.
     Slowly he skated from his net, watched the celebration before him and kept on skating. He wasn't shouting. He wasn't dancing. He wasn't even smiling.
     He was just being Dominik Hasek, the best goaltender in the world.
     He was just thinking, thinking how close to a medal he was, thinking how close to accomplishing what he came here for.
     He was just being the man who stands between Team Canada and the gold medal game, just being the man.
     There are all kinds of motivations of the many hockey players in the Olympic tournament, but Dominik Hasek has never minced his words. This is his Stanley Cup final. This is his shot.
     He grew up in Pardubice, in what used to be Czechoslovakia, and nobody cared about the National Hockey League there, nobody grew up wanting to play for the Buffalo Sabres. The sporting heroes of his youth were the Olympic heroes -- the hockey players who suited up for Czechoslovakia.
     And none of that has changed today. He can win Hart trophies. He can take home all the Vezina and Jennings awards and fill trophy cases with them. He came make headlines for punching a writer and for playing his part in the firing of a coach, but at home in the Czech Republic, none of that matters, none of it is important.
     Back home, where he grew up, and where he since has built a near-palace for himself, this is what matters. The Olympics. A hockey medal.
     For himself. For his friends. For his family. For the country he still goes home to.
     Hasek is 33 years old and there is no time better than this one. He will never be better than he is now. He will never be the right age again. And he will never be this singular, this focused, this certain.
     "You get 40 shots and you control the game, you should win,'' Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. "But we couldn't find a way to solve Dominik Hasek. He was just unbelievable.''
     The trouble for Team Canada was, Hasek wasn't unbelievable. He was all too believable. This is what he does in Buffalo on too many nights in the hockey season, nights when too few of us are paying sufficient attention.
     This is what he does in Carolina and in Dallas and for a Sabres team that has little else besides him. When asked after the 4-1 win over the U.S. if this was his best game ever, an expressionless Hasek merely nodded his head. "I wouldn't call it that,'' he said. "Maybe, it was one of the best.''
     Czech teams always have been enigmatic in international events. They almost never do what they're supposed to do. They never follow any pattern. So, knowing this last summer, coach Ivan Hlinka gathered his potential roster together and asked them to be serious.
     He asked them to commit to the national team. He told the players that if they weren't willing to commit, they could back out now. But no one stepped aside.
     Then yesterday, after a poor first period against the Americans, after only Hasek kept the score close, team captain Vladimir Ruzicka stood up and spoke to the team. He reiterated what had been said in that summer meeting -- he said they could beat the Americans here. He urged the players not to be intimidated by playing against the American stars.
     "We have a very good captain,'' said Hasek, who as recently as last week was still introducing himself to most of his teammates. "I didn't know them before I came here,'' he said. "I didn't even know most of their first names. Now we're a team.''
     Now they stand between Team Canada and the gold medal game, third and fourth line NHLers, players you wouldn't recognize and players you just don't know. But it took only two Czech players to beat 20 Americans -- Dominik Hasek in goal, Jaromir Jagr on the wing. The rest was filler. The rest of the team plays for the tie.
     There is that look in Dominik Hasek's eyes here, that serious look, telling you how important this is to him, telling you he will be great again.
     He has not won Stanley Cups like Patrick Roy. He owns no championship rings. "This is what I want,'' Hasek said. "This is what I do.''
     Steve Simmons can be reached via e-mail at