They care about ice hockey in Buffalo, New York. Because of that, they care about a patch of muscle, tendon and other unspeakable things that lie between the belt and the boots of Dominik `The Dominator' Hasek, the very gifted individual who keeps goal for the Buffalo Sabres. Mr Hasek is by far the team's best player, indeed the best goalie in the world; and he may be all that stands between winning and losing the Stanley Cup for the first time in the team's history. To be precise, they care about his groin.
Mr Hasek's groin has been playing him up since February, causing him to miss several key games, including two in the play-offs that saw the Sabres defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-1. The Sabres can win without him, but the fans would indubitably prefer that he be there tomorrow night when the team faces the Dallas Stars in the first game of the Stanley Cup Finals, even if they can only watch from the local branch of Hooters Restaurant.
Hasek, 34, comes not from the industrial north of New York State but from the ancient city of Pardubice in the Czech Republic. He is at the peak of his profession, and he knows it. He won a gold medal at the 1988 Nagano Olympics, among the many other trophies that he has accumulated over the years.
But the Stanley Cup, the sport's premier trophy, would be something else again. This colonial relic, named for the same family that gave its moniker to Stanley in the Falkland Islands and the Derby (Stanleys become Earls of Derby), has eluded Buffalo since it entered the NHL in 1970.
Defence is the hallmark of both teams, so the media has not entirely relished the prospect of a Stars-Sabres confrontation. Dallas and Buffalo finished the regular season first and second in terms of goals allowed. Both swamped their opponents in the Conference play-offs by closing them down. They are grinders, not ice dancers.
"The Stars against the Sabres is an extended rope-a-dope," wrote Bob Kravitz of Scripps-Howard News Service. "A filibuster on ice."
Hasek's opposite number for the Stars, Ed Belfour, is one of the few goalies who comes close to challenging him. He has a reputation, perhaps unfair, for making mistakes in crucial games, but the pressure on Dallas from the fans will be much less, whatever their own inner demons. The team only came down from Minnesota a few years back, and Dallas still thinks of ice as something that gets put in a glass of Jack Daniels.
The Stars coach Ken Hitchcock is a conservative, and that has paid off this season. "We knew if we played our game that we'd have a chance to win," said Keane of the Stars victory over the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference finals. "We couldn't get into a shoot-out with them. The Dallas Stars take pride in defensive hockey," he added. They will be formidable opponents for the Sabres.
Hasek can take care of himself. He is strong, athletic, imaginative and creative, piling up the pressure on opponents when they get close enough to shoot. The 34-year-old has been Most Valuable Player two years running, and may well be so again this year. And he desperately wants the cup.
"Right next to the gold medal," he said last week. "A lot of us feel that there's always a little hole if you don't get it," said the Sabres coach, Lindy Ruff. "He's going to feel that way if we don't accomplish what we set out to accomplish. You can't say it doesn't bother you if you don't win it."
His critics wonder if he is not a little too perfectionist about his fitness. He has even been accused of lead swinging, with the press and his opponents asking just how bad his injury is. Bad enough that he felt free to have a go at a columnist from the Buffalo News, and bad enough to defend himself vehemently and in public.
"It was tough to go to the coach and tell him that I could not play, but I'm glad I made the decision," he said. "I could play hurt and maybe give up some bad goals and we could lose. I feel good about the decision I made."
His colleagues seem to have got the teeniest bit irritated about the prominence given to Hasek's crotch. "You go to the gas station and it's: `What's up with Dom'?" Rob Ray of the Sabres told Sports Illustrated. "You go to the coffee shop and it's: `How's the groin'?
"In a small city like this, desperate for a winner, the people assume he's going to to be the reason if we win." But, then, perhaps he will be.