It was almost exactly 11 years ago that I left for the first business trip of my professional career. The Hurricanes were participating in the annual rookie tournament hosted in Kitchener, Ont. On the plane with me from Raleigh to Toronto were my new bosses, Jim Rutherford, Jason Karmanos and Paul Maurice, as well as some of our European prospects, who had flown across the ocean to Raleigh to acclimate before making the trip to Kitchener.
Little did I know at the time, but two of those European prospects would not only become important parts of Hurricanes history, but they would also become two of my favorite hockey people. Niclas Wallin and Josef Vasicek would both make the Hurricanes roster during the training camp that followed the tournament in Kitchener. And they’d both have an impact on my life personally and professionally.
Josef was already well-prepared to make the transition to the NHL when I met him, having spent two seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Despite having only arrived in North America the year prior, he served as the Greyhound’s captain during his second OHL season. The qualities that enabled Joe to become the captain of an OHL team were likely the same ones that struck me when I first met him: maturity, leadership and a magnetic, easy-going personality. Especially in an environment where he was surrounded by other hot-shot young players with an array of different attitudes and characteristics, Joe immediately stuck out as the type of person you wanted on your team.
My personal connection with Joe began with a simple t-shirt exchange. In Kitchener, he was wearing a shirt with the logo of the beer produced in his Czech Republic hometown: Rebel. I made a passing comment one day about liking the shirt, and the next thing I knew he was handing it to me a few days later, washed and folded. I returned the favor a few days later, giving him a t-shirt with the logo of my recent alma mater.
Far greater than my own connection with Joe was that of the Tatum family. When Joe made the Hurricanes out of training camp that year, he initially found a home here in Raleigh with the parents of current Director of Team Operations Brian Tatum. Still just 20 years old and adjusting to life far away from home, the billet-type set-up made sense for the Czech native, helping him acclimate to life as a professional athlete. He never forgot what the Tatums did for him, and his bond with that family continued to hold firm a decade later, from halfway around the world.
On the ice, after making an impact with the Hurricanes as a rookie, Joe really hit his stride during his second season, scoring 14 goals and 31 points and helping Carolina capture the Southeast Division title. But he truly sealed his place in Hurricane lore during the 2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was Big Joe that slung home the game-winner in Game 5 against New Jersey
, just minutes after Kevin Weekes made his game-saving save on John Madden. And it was Vasicek that earned the lone assist on Martin Gelinas’ overtime goal in Game 6 in Toronto
, sending the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Despite nagging injuries here and there, Vasicek continued to be an important part of the Hurricanes in the years that followed, leading the team in scoring in 2003-04. He missed most of the 2005-06 season with a knee injury, but played in eight playoff games for Carolina. His name is deservedly etched in silver
on the Stanley Cup for his role on that team, and his place in helping the Hurricanes reach that ultimate pinnacle.
The hockey world is a decidedly small place. Teammates and coaches develop bonds that are impossible for those of us who don’t make our livings in locker rooms to understand, especially when those men are making deep runs in the Stanley Cup playoffs and winning championships. The news of today’s plane crash in Russia has hit people hard all around the world, and our home on Edwards Mill Road is certainly feeling that pain.
Josef Vasicek was a terrific person, from a great family, who did things the right way. He was universally liked by everyone he came in contact with, and went out of his way to make time for anyone. Even on his toughest days, fighting through frustrating injuries, Joe was quick to flash his brilliant smile – the smile of a man whose mother was a dentist – with an understanding that such challenges were temporarily. He was the kind of person that seemed to truly enjoy life and appreciate each day, which is what makes today so very, very difficult.
My thoughts go out to Josef’s family and loved ones, as well as those close to all of the victims of today’s tragedy. It is hard to imagine hockey’s summer of sadness becoming any more heartbreaking than it is today.
I still have that Rebel t-shirt. R.I.P Big Joe.