Tonight is the night I've been waiting years for, a night we always hoped would come against Detroit. Tonight my childhood idol, Dominik Hasek, will have his number 39 raised to the rafters of the First Niagara Center in Buffalo.
I'm Matt, and I'm thrilled to announce that I am the newest contributor here at Winging it in Motown. I started writing about the Wings a little under a year ago and you may have seen my work at Octopus Thrower, or more recently The Hockey Writers. I have nothing but good things to say about the people who write for those sites and the content they produce, but I recently realized this is where I wanted to be. That said, J.J. thought The Dominator's impending jersey retirement ceremony was the perfect opportunity to introduce myself to you by telling the tale of my journey to Red Wings fandom.
First, and perhaps most importantly, I'm not from Michigan. I was born, raised, and reside in Milwaukee's western suburbs, and all of my other sports loyalties fall somewhere within the Wisconsin state lines. But we didn't and likely will never have an NHL team. The United Center is a shade under two hours from my house, but by the time I was eight years old I knew that proper Wisconsinites were not to root for Chicago teams. I learned this mostly by being shunned, Dwight Schrute-style, by my father for owning a Michael Jordan jersey when I was even younger. What can I say? I was a front-running child; I didn't know any better. That's why I find the outrageous number of Blackhawks fans around here so distasteful. There's even an official team-affiliated bar in Milwaukee. It's despicable. But I digress.
Being a front runner did yield one positive result: I kind of liked the Red Wings. I barely even remember watching hockey or seeing them play on TV, but one of my first evocative memories of real-life tragedy was seeing the aftermath of the limousine crash following the 1997 Cup Final on the local news.
My team allegiance changed the following Christmas when I got NHL 98 for the PC and was introduced to Dominik Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres. I don't remember watching much hockey before I got that game, but I needed to see this impenetrable Hasek character in real life. My first taste of his greatness came that winter, catching highlights of his legendary performance at the 1998 Olympic men's hockey tournament, in which he gave up six goals in six games while leading the Czech Republic to the gold medal. I had just started playing goalie for my soccer team because I was one of the only players who wasn't afraid of getting hurt (probably due to the fact that I was too dumb to realize it was a possibility). I was undersized for the position, so naturally I loved how Hasek flew around, making up for his lack of length by flying, flipping, and rolling around the crease without regard for his body. But being a child cheering for an out-of-market team was a little more difficult in those days, and I only loosely followed the Sabres after the Olympics, which remained the case until the NHL playoffs the following season.
Game 1 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final is the first hockey game I remember watching from start to finish. And man, it was mesmerizing. Hasek had been dealing with a groin injury since late that winter and his status entering the playoffs was up in the air. He responded with one of the all-time great stretches of goaltending in playoff history, almost single-handedly pushing the Sabres into the Final despite missing a few games in the process. Hasek then stood on his head in game 1, struggling to play through the pain. Shot after shot, save after save, a little slower to rise each time. The game was tied after regulation and when Buffalo finally scored the winner late in the overtime period, Hasek collapsed in a heap of both agony and relief. I will never forget the image of the Buffalo players celebrating wildly and the camera panning to Hasek, who was laying face down on the ice after stealing the Sabres a victory. I watched the next four games of that series, but remember none as vividly as game 1. I didn't see the deciding game because I had a soccer game early the next morning. It was probably for the best because I would have had no idea what the hell was going on when Brett Hull scored the infamous "No Goal."
Fast forward two years and a new family had moved in at the end of my street. It was a hockey family; a dad, Ray, and his two sons, Nick and Alex. I quickly learned by the memorabilia in the house that these people were Detroit Red Wings fans. A few months later Hasek was traded to Detroit and I never cared about the Sabres again. Nick was my age, and the following June we watched Hasek and the Red Wings clinch the 2002 Stanley Cup in the basement of a friend's end-of-school party while everyone else was outside being social. We don't live down the street from each other anymore, but Nick and Alex are still two of my closest friends. 12 years after the hockey family moved in on the corner, Ray, Nick, Alex, and I made the seven hour drive to Ann Arbor for the 2014 Winter Classic.
In the years following the 2002 Cup championship, Hasek retired, came back, went to the Ottawa Senators, and came back again. I swore I would always root for him wherever he went. But I also knew I was now a Red Wings fan, and nothing was going to change that.