The news came Monday. After 15 seasons tending goal in the National Hockey League, Tomas Vokoun announced his retirement. He played 383 regular season games for the Nashville Predators, 248 for Florida, 48 with Washington and 20 for Pittsburgh.
When an expansion team begins play, as the Predators did in October of 1998, the players have chips on their shoulders. They were basically unwanted by their previous teams.
Tomas Vokoun could really feel that way. He had spent three professional seasons (114 games) in the Montreal organization, and had played just one period for the Canadiens. In that one, he allowed four goals in Philadelphia. Jose Theodore was ahead of him in the American League and Jocelyn Thibault was the starter in net for Montreal.
Rejean Houle was the General Manager in Montreal at the time of the 1998 Expansion Draft. His strategy was to lose Vokoun then, in order to protect against losing some of his younger goalies in the expansion drafts that were to follow, stocking Atlanta (1999), Columbus and Minnesota (2000).
So, Houle made a deal with Predators General Manager David Poile. Houle sent center Sebastien Bordeleau to the Predators for “future considerations,” so that Poile would take Vokoun in the expansion draft.
It was a depth move at the time, but turned out to be a great one very shortly. Tomas began that first season with the Milwaukee Admirals and played nine games, as Eric Fichaud began as Mike Dunham’s back-up with the Predators.
Tomas got into his first game on the road in Vancouver on Nov. 7, allowing five goals. His next appearance was a week later in St. Louis, and he turned in a scoreless period in relief of Dunham. By early December, Tomas had appeared in four straight, including a 2-1 win over San Jose.
By that point in time, Tomas would often sit on the seat behind me on the team bus and would ask me about his hockey hero, Dominik Hasek. I had been on the Sabres’ broadcast team before moving to Nashville and he wanted to hear whatever he could about “The Dominator” from me, as well as goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
In January, Vokoun started eight straight, the second of those against Phoenix at 501 Broadway. Tomas stopped 31 shots that night for the first shutout in team history. (Watch first shutout in team history)
Vokoun would go on to play eight of the team’s final 11 games and establish himself as no worse than a solid No. 2 goaltender. He was 12-18-6 with a 2.95 goals-against average behind an expansion team’s defense. He played 99 games over the following three seasons. Then, the determination was made that he was ready to be the starter.
Like in football, where the backup quarterback oftentimes becomes a crowd favorite, Tomas did just that. He did it with some spectacular saves, like these, which began with a breakaway by Florida’s Pavel Bure:
On Dec. 12, 2002, Mike Dunham was dealt to the New York Rangers for forward Rem Murray and defensemen Tomas Kloucek and Marek Zidlicky.
The team was 6-14-8 at the time of the trade and broke even the rest of the way (21-21-12) as Vokoun started the final 53 games, 69 in all.
The team rallied behind a man they realized would battle for them, literally: (Watch Tomas Vokoun fight Jarome Iginla and then Jamie McLennan)
That was on January 16, 2003, as Tomas was in the early stages of his ironman streak in net. They didn’t make the playoffs that season, but Vokoun had set the stage. With Tomas in net, the Predators made the playoffs the next three seasons.
The first playoff game in Nashville was on Easter Sunday, April 11, 2004, against the Detroit Red Wings. Vokoun beat the Red Wings, 3-1. Two days later, he shut them out, 3-0.
So the Predators in their first series were even after four games with Detroit. Before Game Five, a headline in the Detroit Free Press was: “Panic in Hockeytown.” However, the Red Wings themselves came back to take the series in six games.
Because Tomas seemed to relish taking risks in (and out) of the net, I took to calling him “Evil Knievel” on occasion. That spirit would lead to his scraps with Jarome Iginla. The thing with Tomas, he loved to challenge the shooters. (Watch Tomas Vokoun leave the crease to stop Jonathan Cheechoo on a breakaway)
Vokoun was clearly the man, ready to stop any and everything. It could be Teemu Selanne or any of the NHL’s game-breakers at the time:
As well as things were going for Vokoun and the Predators at the time, it all ground to a halt with the NHL lockout, which resulted in the loss of the 2004-05 season. By mid-July of 2005, the two sides had a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and they hurriedly prepared for a full season that fall. Tomas joined me on my talk show at that point on Nashville’s 106.7 the Fan:
Vokoun was no stranger by that time with Nashville’s radio audience. He once heard something on a morning show and called the station to refute it. The problem, the producer thought it was someone doing a “Tomas Vokoun impression” and hung up on him. Tomas was persistent though, calling back and getting on the air to make his point.
When the Predators were put up for sale in 2007, Tomas was among the losses from the roster. He was dealt to Florida, where his workload increased. He spent four years there with no playoff activity. Then it was off to Washington for a season, then to one final (lockout-shortened season) with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.
There, he became a leader and savior again, stepping in for a faltering Marc-Andre Fleury in the playoffs. The Penguins had the top record in the Eastern Conference, but their series with the Islanders was even after four games. Dan Bylsma put Vokoun in and he won the next two to close out the Islanders. It was at that point that Tomas got some love from a future Hall of Fame goaltender on Hockey Night in Canada: (Watch Martin Brodeur praise the career of Tomas Vokoun)
The Boston Bruins swept the Penguins in the Conference Final as Vokoun’s magic ran into the Bruins’ buzz saw.
Last season, Tomas was hit with blood clots for the second time in his career. He had missed the 2006 playoffs with the Predators when he was diagnosed with them in his abdomen, but had come back strong the following season. In late September of 2013, he developed blood clots in his leg and the report from the Czech Republic was that he had a near-death experience.
The treatment with blood thinners kept him out of action most of the season, as he managed but two “conditioning assignment” stints with the Penguins’ American League club in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Monday morning came word over Twitter that he was retiring. "I can say that it was a successful career," Vokoun said to iSport. "I'm proud of what I did.”
He should be – with 300 NHL wins, two gold medals from the World Championships and a bronze medal from the 2006 Olympics in Turino. He represented the Predators in two All-Star games, and as this is written, appeared in more games (383) than any Nashville goaltender (Pekka Rinne is at 343).
Tomas Vokoun will always be remembered here as the blue-collar goaltender that helped turn the Predators franchise from its expansion infancy to a perennial playoff team. He played 12 seasons out of the “mainstream NHL,” but his efforts, results – and his humanity – were always distinguished. I would love to see “The Russian Rocket” breaking in on him again!