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Vanek embraces leadership role with Austria

by Jon Lane

NEW YORK -- New York Islanders forward Thomas Vanek will not only make his Olympic debut next month at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he will serve as the captain of the Austrian team. The announcement was made Tuesday by national team coach Manny Viveiros.

"Just being part of it is big for our country," Vanek said. "To be named captain is something special, but we have a lot of good guys who will help me out. We have a good leadership group."

Vanek is one of three NHL players who will compete for Austria. He joins Islanders teammate Michael Grabner and Philadelphia Flyers forward Michael Raffl.

"He's obviously been around the block a few times," Grabner said of Vanek. "He's always one of the biggest icons for hockey in Austria, so it's a big honor for him. It's nice to have him as my captain. I think he's going to have a big influence on the younger players on our team and, obviously, a lot of people, including myself, can learn a lot from him.

"Whenever he says something during games or after games, especially when we're not doing so good, everybody pays attention to him."

Vanek, 30, became highest-drafted Austrian-born player in League history when the Buffalo Sabres selected him with the fifth pick of the 2003 NHL Draft. He has 19 goals and 47 points in 52 games this season with the Sabres and Islanders. In New York, he's part of a line with Kyle Okposo and John Tavares that has a combined 65 goals and 168 points.

"He complements our lineup very well," Okposo said. "He makes a lot of plays that not very many guys in the League can see, and he's able to fit pucks through places that you don't expect and you don't think is coming, so you always have to have your stick on the ice and be aware.

"He's a guy that's been around this League for a long time. He leads by the way that he plays. I'm sure he's going to continue that over there."

In 637 NHL games with Buffalo and New York, Vanek has 269 goals and 535 points. He leads a country that will play in its first Olympics since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, in which they finished 12th. The Austrians will play in Group B, which includes Canada, Finland and Norway.

The odds are long that Austria will advance deep into the knockout portion of the tournament, but one look at Belarus' fourth-place finish in 2002, which included an upset of Sweden in the quarterfinals, fuels the belief that anything can happen.

"That's why you play the games," Vanek said. "You look at our group with Canada, Finland and Norway, we're the underdog against all of them. But at the end of the day that's why you go over there and enjoy it and play the game."

"We have to be realistic. Obviously we'd rather be in a position where we have talented players like Sweden and Finland, but we're not quite there as a country. We're enjoying the underdog role and hopefully we can make a surprise or two."

Thomas Koch, who captained Austria at the 2012 and 2013 World Championships and also at the 2013 Olympic qualifying tournament, will serve as an alternate captain along with Matthias Trattnig. Both play professionally in Austria.


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