You could almost hear a collective groan emanating from the Czech Republic on that February day in 2006 when the great Dominik Hasek
limped off the ice after sustaining a tournament-ending leg injury in the opening game of the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Hasek, after all, was the player most responsible for the Czech's stunning gold-medal performance in Nagano in 1998, where Hasek earned a semifinal-round shootout victory against Team Canada before shutting out Russia in the gold-medal game. Would his absence hurt the country's chances at rebounding from a seventh-place showing at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City?
Not really. Not when the No. 2 goalie on the Czech Republic depth chart happens to be Tomas Vokoun
. In fact, after being told by doctors he would be unable to play in any of the remaining '06 Games, "The Dominator" admitted the country was in good hands with Vokoun.
"He is a great goalie and the Czech Republic will be OK in goal with him," Hasek said at the time.
Vokoun, much like Hasek in his prime, is extremely nimble and athletic while exhibiting one of the quickest glove hands in the game. He was the logical choice then and now.
"I just knew I had to be ready," Vokoun told NHL.com. "I wasn't supposed to be the No. 1 goalie, but, in saying that, you just never know how events will turn out. I just was ready and went in the net and played the best I could."
Vokoun, who won a gold medal with the Czechs at the 2005 World Championships in Austria after posting a 7-1 record, 1.08 goals-against average and .953 save percentage, would ultimately play a big role in leading the Czechs to a bronze medal in '06.
Not too shabby for a guy forced to replace an icon at a time when national pride was at a low. In a span of four years, Vokoun has gone from being the savior as a backup to being the man in charge as the 2010 Games in Vancouver approach.
"Regardless of which country you play for, having the Olympics in Canada, where it's the national sport, is going to be huge," Vokoun said. "I'm honored and proud to be one of the goalies getting the chance to play. It's my second Olympics and, as an athlete, regardless of whether you're professional or amateur, it's great to play and be a part of the Olympics."
Perhaps the greatest intangible quality Vokoun possesses is his ability to play within the moment. He presents a cool and calm demeanor that is extremely infectious within the dressing room. It's no wonder that in two-plus seasons with the Florida Panthers
, he's already considered the backbone of the franchise.
He made his 10th straight start against the New Jersey Devils
on Wednesday and, despite a 2-0 loss to Martin Brodeur
, made 31 saves to keep his team within striking distance. He recorded his fifth shutout -- tied for second in the League -- in a 27-save, 1-0 win against Atlanta on Jan. 18.
"His focus has been great and he's enjoying coming to the rink," Panthers goalie consultant Robb Tallas said. "Goalies go through runs like this where you can get on that wave. And you want to ride it as long as you can."
Vokoun, who ranks first in the NHL with 1,253 saves, is second in shots faced (1,350) and third in save percentage (.928), admits he's no different now than his previous 10 seasons in the League. It's what has made him such a consistence force year in and year out.
"I felt pretty good last year too," he said, almost matter-of-factly. "I finished second in save percentage (.926) and I pride myself in being consistent with however highs or lows come my way. I don't do anything different or special, I just do what I've always done. I'm just out there to play to the best of my capabilities."
Brodeur admires Vokoun's style and knows he'll be counted on by his country next month.
"Vokoun's been good every time we play him -- he's such an athletic goalie and he controls and kicks away those rebounds," Brodeur said. "He's an exciting goalie to watch. He's going to try and lead the Czech Republic to a gold medal, so it's always fun when you match up against goalies you know you're going to have to face in February."
Panthers coach Peter DeBoer
summed up his starting goalie best.
"We know we're going to get a big save at a key time," DeBoer said.
"Tomas has been our backbone," Panthers defenseman Dennis Seidenberg
said. "Any time you get solid goaltending, it gives the whole team confidence. It helps you stay in games, especially close games."
And that's precisely the type of effort the Czech Republic will be hoping for when the Winter Games commence.
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com