Thomas Vanek grew up in Graz, Austria – just 388 miles from Berlin, Germany. It will be a homecoming of sorts for Vanek on Saturday night when the Sabres faceoff against the Los Angeles Kings at the O2 Arena for the first ever regular season game to be played in Berlin. Vanek, one of just three current Austrian-born NHLers and the highest-scoring of all-time, talked to Kevin Snow of Sabres.com recently to discuss the team’s historic trip to Europe.
WHAT DOES THIS TRIP MEAN TO YOU? I’ve been really excited about this trip for a while now. From a personal standpoint, I get to see a lot of my family. But for me the biggest thing is that there are a lot of Sabres fans in Austria, especially in the last six years that I’ve been playing in here – and a lot of them don’t get to come over to Buffalo. There’s going to be a lot of people in Berlin cheering us on and I can’t wait to skate out on the ice Saturday night.
DID YOU FOLLOW THE NHL AS A KID? There wasn’t much exposure to the NHL when I was growing up. Obviously if you were involved in hockey you know about it. All we got on TV was a weekly highlights show and that was it. I was glued to that show because that’s how we got our updates. There was no internet at that time. But over the years the game has grown a lot. There are more games on TV, more access through the internet, and that has just created more interest over all back home. As far as promoting the game in Austria, this trip will only create more buzz back home because the NHL is light years ahead of here they used to be when I was there.
HOW CAN AUSTRIAN HOCKEY IMPROVE? The lack of youth programs is probably the biggest issue with Austrian hockey right now. I think there are kids that want to play. But it’s expensive to start with, and there aren’t enough rinks for kids to play on. In the town I grew up in – Graz – they may only have three rinks, and it’s a fairly big town. For a country like Austria to really get better over the years, get better in the World Championships -- it starts with youth hockey. They need to start building rinks and give the kids every opportunity to stay.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE PART OF THE FIRST NHL GAME IN BERLIN? It’s tremendously exciting for not just Berlin, but for all of Europe. The game is so globalized now; the best players from everywhere play in North America. It’s been marketed so well all over the world. For a huge city like Berlin they are going to be excited, as will everyone from all the neighboring cities and countries. It’s a thrill for us to be able to go over there and play, because we know how excited everyone will be to come and watch us.