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Sabres LW Vanek prepared to meet expectations that come with hefty new contract @NHLdotcom

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Thomas Vanek has known pressure almost as long as he's been lacing up hockey skates.

Long before he led Minnesota to an NCAA hockey title as a freshman, was picked by the Sabres in first-round of the 2003 draft, and well before he signed a seven-year, $50 million contract last summer, Vanek felt the burden of expectations.

The Austrian might not have been able to express it in English, but he certainly knew what pressure and expectation felt like late in the summer of 1998 when his flight touched down in Calgary, Alberta. That's where it all began for Vanek who, at 14, left his family and friends behind to pursue his childhood dream of one day playing in the NHL.

He spent the first three months in the mid-Alberta farm city of Red Deer battling homesickness, struggling to adjust to the culture, buildings and landscape of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

"You always have second thoughts," the Sabres' emerging star forward recalled last week as he prepared to begin his third NHL season. "It was like, `Oh, I wish I could go home and talk to my buddies."'

There was one place Vanek found comfort - on the ice. That's where everything felt normal and familiar enough to convince him to stay.

Pressure and expectations? The spotlight has been on him ever since he left home, and Vanek boasts he's now more fluent in English than German.

And nothing - not the team-leading 43 goals he scored last season, and especially not the eye-popping contract he signed in July - is going to affect him.

"No, it's actually been the same," Vanek said with a shrug. "People have expected more out of me than everyone else. So I've been living in that same mode for a while. I don't mind it. I like the pressure."

There will be plenty of that on his shoulders this season because Vanek becomes the new face of a Sabres franchise that endured a tumultuous summer. The team botched its attempts to re-sign Chris Drury and Daniel Briere, and wound up losing both co-captains to free agency.

And before the Sabres could fully digest those significant losses, the Edmonton Oilers were preparing to pluck away Vanek by offering the restricted free agent a contract that stunned most NHL observers.

Without hesitation, the Sabres matched the Oilers and, by doing so, made Vanek the richest player in team history. He'll make $10 million just this season, eclipsing the $942,400 he made last year.

Now it's on Vanek to prove he was worth it. He'll have to do it in a hockey-mad city that, despite the Sabres' offseason losses, has high expectations for a team that was eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals the past two years.

"That isn't Thomas' doing," coach Lindy Ruff said, referring to the unexpected way Vanek reached his new contract. "But that has obviously added pressure from the outside. From the inside, it's me helping him deal with the rest of the pressure."

Part of Ruff's task is ensuring Vanek stays grounded and focused.

"Is it realistic to think he can go from 25 goals to 43 to 70-something? I don't think so," Ruff said. "I need Thomas to play like he's a $900,000 player because it seemed to be pretty good last year."

Vanek shone last season, finishing fifth in the NHL in scoring while producing the most goals by a Sabres player since Alexander Mogilny scored 76 and Pat LaFontaine 53 in 1992-93. Vanek particularly benefited from the Sabres offensively deep three-line attack, which played havoc with most opposing defenses.

Vanek, however, will have to carry more of the load this season after the departures of Briere and Drury, who combined for 75 goals last season.

Not to worry.

"You can't start the season and pout about it," Vanek said. "Obviously, all of us have to step up and contribute in more ways."

If he's successful, he'll be building on a history of accomplishment at every level.

In 2003, Vanek was named the NCAA tournament MVP after scoring the game-winning goals in both Minnesota's NCAA semifinal and final victories. In 2001, playing for Sioux Falls, he led the USHL with 91 points (46 goals, 45 assists) in 53 games.

Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell hasn't noticed any difference in Vanek's demeanor or attitude, and is confident his teammate will be OK.

"I don't think you ever know what it's like until you experience it. ... But we're going to be there to help him," Campbell said. "He's smiling. He's having fun. Let him be. He'll be fine."

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