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For Vanek, Home Is Where The Heart Is

by Mike Doyle / Minnesota Wild

Anyone who has ever moved for a job knows how difficult it can be. You have to figure out a living situation, how to navigate in a new city, get to know different coworkers and are removed from friends and family members. Even for a professional athlete, getting traded mid-season can be taxing.

Last season, Thomas Vanek had to go through the entire process. Twice.

First, the forward was moved from Buffalo, where he spent his entire National Hockey League career with the Sabres, to the New York Islanders. Then, on the NHL’s Trade Deadline Day he was dealt again, this time to the Montreal Canadiens.

It could’ve been his most difficult season as a pro. However, his on-ice production didn’t show it. Even while playing in three different cities, Vanek put up 68 points (27-41=68), his highest total since 2010-11. But the most difficult thing was what he was missing away from the rink.

“It’s no fun, especially at this stage of my career,” Vanek said. “My oldest (Blake) is in school, so (my family) stayed back in Buffalo because I didn’t want to pull him out of school. So they would only come and visit. Being on my own at my age, not that I’m old or anything, you miss your family and it gets old.”

After helping Montreal reach the Eastern Conference Finals, where the New York Rangers ousted the Canadiens in six games, Vanek went into the offseason an unrestricted free agent. He had a checklist of things he was looking for in a team.

Atop the list: playing for a contender in a place where his family would be comfortable.

Of course, the team that most often came up when discussing possible Vanek destinations amongst fans and the media: The Minnesota Wild. Fans in the State of Hockey were well aware of his exploits.

The 30-year-old was a two-year star at the University of Minnesota, helping lead the Golden Gophers to a National Championship in 2003. Since dominating the Mariucci Arena ice in college, he has made Minnesota his home during the summer.

On the ice, Vanek’s particular skill set seemed like it would fit nicely in Minnesota, too. The wing has racked up the eighth-most goals in the NHL since 2005-06, and is third in the League during that span in power play goals (113). Meanwhile, last season the Wild ranked 24th in the League in goals and 17th on the power play (17.9 percent). So, it was natural for State of Hockey fans to believe that the Wild/Vanek pairing would be a match made in hockey heaven.

There would be other teams vying for Vanek’s services, but in the end, the Wild’s up- side, along with the allure to stay in Minnesota, proved too tempting of an opportunity to pass up. On the opening day of NHL free agency, Vanek inked a three-year deal to “stay” in Minnesota.

“Thomas may be one of the only players to take a pay cut and a term cut to come anywhere,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said at Vanek’s introductory press conference on July 1. “Everybody else is doubling and tripling their salary.”

“For our team, he’s a really good player,” former U of M teammate and Wild defenseman Keith Ballard said. “He scores goals. I think everyone will be excited to have him; he’s good in front of the net and he’s good with the puck. He’ll be a good fit.”

It was the Wild’s recent upward trend, coinciding with a mix of veterans and youngsters that appealed to the winger.

“Most importantly, it was the depth of the team that I like,” Vanek said. “That’s the main reason and I think we have a chance to win.”

Vanek is the club’s third marquee free agent signing in recent history. The trend of Minnesota emerging as a power player for free agents, of course, began on July 4, 2012, with the dual signing of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

“If you sign guys like Zach and Ryan, it sends a statement to the whole League, not just myself. Those are two good guys to build around,” Vanek said. “Then you add Mikko (Koivu) and Pommer (Jason Pominville) and so on. Now, you look at the (defending Stanley Cup champion) L.A. Kings and the reason they’re successful is that they have depth.”

A Long Way From Minnesota

Vanek’s ascension began in a place known more for downhill skiing than slap shots: Austria. Born in the capital city of Vienna, he was raised in Graz.

“If you’re familiar with Austria, skiing is huge and what we’re known for,” Vanek said. “Soccer and tennis are big and hockey trickles down somewhere with swimming. So (hockey’s) not very big. It’s grown, but it’s not as big as I’d like it to be, or where it should be.”

It wasn’t the ski slopes that captivated him as a youngster in the mountains. His love of the game developed at an early age. His father, Zdenek, was a professional hockey player and his coach. Some of his earliest memories are of the rink with his father.

“My dad played hockey in Europe, so I grew up with the game,” Vanek said. “He had a huge influence on me. The love of the game was always there from day one, walking into the rink and watching him. He still is an influence; he taught me the game and he taught me a lot of it.

“But I think the thing I respect the most, looking back, my dad never forced us to play hockey.”

Vanek played hockey in the winter, but he’d use his summers to play tennis and soccer. The tennis helped with his hand-eye coordination, which he deftly uses to tip the puck in front of the net, and soccer with his footwork.

On the ice, he idolized Wayne Gretzky and Jaromir Jagr, and would emulate their offensive moves. Watching the best in the world, and as his own skills developed, he began to envision a life of hockey.

“The dream was always the NHL,” Vanek said.

A Long Way From Home

The NHL dream took him out of the Alps and landed him smack dab in the heart of hockey country. Leaving his parents in Austria, he moved to Lacombe, Alberta, a small town outside of Red Deer, between Edmonton and Calgary, to play midget hockey. He was 14.

“It was a hard decision at a young age, but my parents always said, ‘Go ahead and try it. If you don’t like it you can always come home,’” Vanek said. “From a parents’ standpoint, now looking back with my own kids, having them go at 14, I think it would be hard. So, I appreciate that my parents let me do it and were behind me.”

The following year, he went to Rochester, N.Y., to play for the first- year Junior Americans in the North American Hockey League. However, as a European, the club had difficulties getting him enrolled into high school.

“My mom and dad pulled the plug, because at 15 and a sophomore in high school, they said, ‘You need to go to school,’” Vanek said.

For Vanek, the complications with enrollment ended up as a blessing in disguise, as well as his next destination: the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League (USHL).

Per USHL rules, teams could carry two imports. Fortunately, the Stampede had an opening and Head Coach Bob Motzko, who would later go on to coach Vanek at the University of Minnesota, jumped at the opportunity to acquire him.

“Tony Gasparini (then Stampede assistant coach) had just seen him play and he said, ‘absolutely,’” Motzko said. “He’d be a great addition and we could work with him even though he was so young.”

For Motzko, the then 15-year-old’s ability was obvious.

“No question that very quickly, all of us in practice could see,” Motzko said. “For a young guy, he had good size, so he wasn’t going to get pushed around or anything like that. Then when he started to play, he was at such an advanced level that age didn’t matter.

“We all saw something special.”

In three seasons with the Stampede, Vanek racked up 153 points (80-73=153), including a 91-point (46-45=91) season in 2001-02. Both marks still stand as team records.

His oversized talents couldn’t be contained in junior hockey and they wouldn’t be at the next level, either.

The U of M

Rather than taking the major-junior path, Vanek decided to play college puck. He figured if hockey didn’t work out, he’d have an education to fall back on. Easily, he was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. He visited perennial hockey power- houses Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. He chose to rejoin his former junior coach, Motzko, at the University of Minnesota.

“The Midwestern mentality and the Gophers really stuck out to me and why I decided to go there,” Vanek said.

The program’s recent success didn’t hurt things, either, but expectations would be high for the freshman. The Golden Gophers were coming off a National Championship season, but would be without its three leading scorers from the previous year: Johnny Pohl, Jeff Taffe and Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold. Adding to the pressure, Vanek would be the first European-born player to skate for the Maroon and Gold.

“His ability was always going to open a door for him,” Motzko said. “Being the first foreign-born player to play at the University of Minnesota, he cared deeply about it.”

The Austrian delivered, leading the Gophers in scoring as a freshman, tallying 31 goals and 31 assists. He was named the team’s most valuable player, the first freshman to receive the honor.

“At 18 years old, he was one of the best couple of college players in the country,” Ballard said. “There were times during the season or during games and he’s playing against 21, 22-year-old guys and they can’t get the puck from him and they can’t stop him.”

But Vanek might’ve saved his best performance for when it mattered most. In the Frozen Four, the freshman was named the tournament’s most valuable player, scoring game winning goals in both the semifinal against Michigan and in overtime during the National Championship Game against New Hampshire.

“He has those games where he gets 10 shots and a couple of goals,” Ballard said. “Thankfully for us he had, in the NCAA tournament, two of those games where it was hands down, he was the best player on the ice. And it wasn’t even close.”

The summer after his first year of college, Vanek became the highest drafted Austrian-born player ever when the Buffalo Sabres took him with the fifth-overall pick in 2003.

Minnesota Home

After another dominant season as a sophomore, where Vanek would again lead the Gophers in scoring, he would leave college behind for pro hockey.

After spending a year with the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate, during the 2004-05 lockout, Vanek “ made his NHL dream a reality on Oct. 5, 2005, coincidentally, against the Islanders.

He never looked back.

In nine NHL seasons with Buffalo, New York and Montreal, he amassed 277 goals and 279 assists in 663 games. But through it all, Minnesota would never be far from his heart. The Austrian would take summer residence in the Land of 10,000 Lakes and remain close to his former teammates and alma mater.

“For years we’d come back to Minnesota and Mariucci and train there,” Ballard said. “Since then, we’ve both started to go to different places, but we stay in touch and see each other quite a bit during the summer.”

“You watched him and what he went through at the University of Minnesota and he’s very close with his teammates, and especially his classmates. He’s still very close with them to this day,” Motzko said. “The biggest thing with Thomas, as you look back, he could score goals and was a great player, but he was just a big-hearted person. He was definitely loyal to the people that cared for him, like his housing family (in Sioux Falls) and our equipment guys and trainers. He was a long way from home and the people that took an interest in him he is definitely loyal to.”

Vanek had more than teammates around when he returned to Minne- sota; he married his college sweet- heart, Ashley. Together, the couple has started a family and has spent their summers in Minnesota. They have three boys, Blake, and twins, Kade and Luka.

For the first time, the Vanek family won’t have to pick up and move for hockey season.

“You’re not going to get this from Thomas, but (Minnesota) is home for him now,” Motzko said. “How fortunate it is for all of us that he gets to come home and play.”

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