Sunday, March 25, 2012

Vanek: A 28-year-old Austrian is Still Climbing the Mountains

By Larry Wigge

Once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer.

Now there a philosophy work pursuing. Some goal-scorers dip and slump and then fall off the face of the earth. Not Thomas Vanek of the Buffalo Sabres.

When he scored his 19th goal of the season back on January 6 against Carolina, there he was on pace for his another 30-goal campaign -- which would have been his fifth in the last six seasons.

Consistency. Poise. He's got the quickest hands I've seen on a kid that age in a long time.

So where has he been in the last two months. What has happened to the flying Austrian?

A shoulder injury ... a neck injury ... who knows else has been bothering Vanek, who makes a living on the edge of the goal crease -- where the goal-scorers hang out.

With just over two weeks left in the regular season, the Sabres were looking for goals ... anywhere, from anyone.

The 6-2, 205-pound former fifth overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft finally found the mark again to raise his stats to 24 goals and 31 assists in Buffalo's 3-1 victory the Minnesota Wild. See there, a 28-year-old vet does still have it.

"I'm happy for him because it's a grind out there and teams focus on him. They try to rough him up," said goaltender Ryan Miller. "He's got many things going on right now that you just have to grit it out and play through it. They're not quite bad enough to keep you out of the lineup but they're not fun to have.

"I think Thomas always does a great job of playing with a lot of discomfort ... going to the net."

"You always watch players around the league and you know he's one of the best players in the world," newcomer Cody Hodgson said. "Everyone knows he can score goals ... but he's also a really good person off the ice, just a great guy to be a teammate of."

Barring a huge finish, this will be the first time since his 2005-06 rookie season that Vanek won't lead the Sabres in goals. But he'll keep answering the call every night.

"He's battling," coach Lindy Ruff said, but ...

Spending a few moments with Thomas Vanek, you become convinced there's no way you can come up with a doubting Thomas story.

You remember the story of 2007, the summer in which Vanek signed a seven-year, $50 million free-agent offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers that was matched by his Buffalo Sabres. The Graz, Austria, native, insisted he has never felt like he had 50 million reasons as a burden of expectations hanging over his head.

"It's never been about the money, from the time I left Austria when I was 14 to come to North America to see if I could make a career for myself in hockey -- leaving family and friends thousands of miles away to my days at the University of Minnesota and winning the NCAA championship as a freshman to being picked fifth overall in the 2002 draft by the Sabres to scoring 25 goals in my first year and then getting 43 the next, which led to the offer sheet," he told me in after his third season. "I can honestly look you straight in the eyes and say that I'm the same player ... whether I'm making $600,000 or $10 million."

Now that's a lot to digest, isn't it?

While Vanek slumped to 36 goals last season, he started this season with six goals in his first four games, including two while the Sabres were shorthanded to show that he ready to once again challenge the 50-goal plateau and, minus Sabres veteran standouts like Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell in the last two years, and be a young leader in the Buffalo lineup this season.

"Pressure?" he explained, "isn't a burden unless you let it be one. I look at pressure like adrenaline as being a heartbeat that pushes you to play better."

If you get the feeling that this kid is too good to be true after hearing a couple of comments from him, well, I think he is. And so must the Oilers, who submitted the big-time offer sheet for a restricted free agent who had yet to put together a series of unforgettable seasons, plus the Sabres, who matched that offer in a heartbeat in spite of losing the likes of Drury and Briere to free agency and being only a couple of years out of bankruptcy court.

"He's a goal-scorer. More than that, he scores big goals," Sabres G.M. Darcy Regier told me. "So many of his goals have come in crucial situations -- and that's something every team needs."

Vanek is not only a goal scorer with 43 snipes as his contract that paid him $962,000 ran out after the 2006-07 season. He had 84 points in that season, the second year of his entry level contract in his second season in the league. The goals enabled him to finish tied for fifth in the NHL -- and it was the most by a Sabres player since Alexander Mogilny scored 76 and Pat LaFontaine 53 in 1992-93.

Hearing good things from another team is clearly the sincerest form of flattery -- and that's precisely the case with Kevin Lowe, who was the Oilers GM at the time of the contract and has since been before he was elevated in Edmonton's hierarchy this year. Lowe wouldn't say it, but he obviously believed a cash-strapped organization which couldn't keep Briere and Drury might not be willing to put up that kind of money to keep a 23-year-old.

"With a player like that you can win a championship. You can get very excited," Lowe recalled. "This wasn't a publicity stunt by any stretch. It was a strong, good shot to get a player. We thought it might work based on the size of the offer."

Vanek has been a growing star almost since his plane from Graz hit the ground first in the farmland of Alberta in Calgary and Red Deer in the summer of 1999 not being able to speak a word of English. He went on to play three seasons at Sioux Falls, Iowa, of the United States Hockey League, where he had 15, 19 and 46 goals, which led him to the campus of the University of Minnesota, where he had 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games as a freshman in 2002-03 and 26 goals and 25 assists in 38 games the following season. In April 2003, during the Frozen Four at Buffalo's HSBC Arena, Vanek led the University of Minnesota to the NCAA title as a freshman, scoring the game-winning goals in both the semifinal and championship games. He was named the NCAA tournament MVP. In the process, he became the first freshman to lead the Gophers in scoring since 1970 and was named the WCHA Rookie of the Year.

Vanek is obviously a grounded individual who thrives on pressure. On the ice, Thomas shows you bursts of speed, but mostly plays under control almost like he disappears for a moment and then -- boom -- there he is in the right place at the right time for a great goal-scoring opportunity.

"He's got the quickest hands I've seen on a kid that age in a long time," defenseman Jay McKee told me a few years later. "He's electric when he gets the puck in a scoring position."

All you get is a shrug when you tell Vanek what someone else thinks about him.

"You want surprise," he laughed. "How about traveling from Graz to Calgary and then on to Red Deer, Alberta, thousands of miles away from family and friends not being able to speak a word of English. That's surprise."

I always like to ask players what obstacle they might have had to overcome to achieve the success they have in the world of sports. For Thomas, it was not being doubted because he was too small, too slow, too this or too that.

"All I remember is here I was in a foreign place to me. I was homesick. I had second thoughts about my move. I remember thinking, 'Boy do I wish I could go home and talk to my buddies.' But I had the hopes of everyone in Austria on me," he observed. "I might not have been able to communicate too well off the ice, but I knew the right words and moves to compete on the ice.

"I have always put high expectations on myself, no matter how many dollars I was getting to produce."

No, Thomas Vanek wasn't too small or too slow. Some may have criticized him as being lazy because of the way he plays under control ... until there's a scoring opportunity. But ...

"My dad (Zdenek) is a hockey coach back home, so he had me on skates and with a stick in my hands when I was about this high," he said, pointing downward about three feet off the ground in the Sabres locker room. "He taught me everything I know. He gave me the genes to be an athlete. My mom (Jarmila) is a hotel manager. I saw how hard she worked, too. That makes an impression on you, if you know what I mean? It makes you want to fulfill your life's dream."

His dad's advice comes back every time he hits the skids.

Ruff paused for a second, smiled and then continued his thought, saying, "I guess what I'm saying is that I need Thomas to play like he’s a $900,000 player, because it seemed to be pretty good a couple of years ago."

Thomas Vanek chuckles to himself ...

"That's funny ... because it's almost the same as my dad told me ..."

No doubting Thomas Vanek, is there? He is indeed once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer.

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