BY CHRIS JOHNSTON IN MONTREAL AND TAMPA BAY
The morning of April 21 is the 50th day in a row that Thomas Vanek has woken up in a hotel bed. He arrives at Montreal’s suburban practice facility in Brossard with his ears still ringing from the night before. The Bell Centre had more than lived up to its reputation as the best building in hockey during Vanek’s first ever playoff game there. With the Habs well on their way to a first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, belief in the dressing room and the stands is building. The excitement is infectious. Yet, there is an ever-so-slight dip in Vanek’s demeanour and a “not this again” look on his face when asked if a special spring might complicate his desire to become a free agent. “I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t worried about a contract since last summer. I don’t think it’s fair right now to anyone to even think about it.” Vanek has repeated this refrain so often and so plainly that the question really need not be put to him again. It will be, of course.The chase for a big free-agent contract is not so different from the chase for the Stanley Cup: You only get so many chances, if you’re lucky enough to get one. Vanek, 30, just happens to have spent recent months in pursuit of both, the product of a strange season that has seen him officially become a hockey mercenary. No strings attached.The reason Vanek is a millionaire many times over is because of an uncanny ability to sense opportunity and strike. He’s not flashy, nor does he have great speed or a big shot; rather, he seems to disappear in plain view before re-emerging at just the right moment, a rare skill. His first three goals with Montreal (a hat trick in front of a home crowd that roared his name in adoration as he was named the game’s first star) were perfectly emblematic of what makes him so dangerous. The first two were quick shots from in front when a defenceman seemed to lose track of him. The third was a tipped point shot—again, with him standing right in front of the goal. He’s not often mentioned among the world’s elite goal scorers, but only Alex Ovechkin, Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk have scored more goals than him since the beginning of the 2006–07 season. As one NHL coach puts it: “You don’t spend the whole night worrying about Vanek, but by the time the game is over you might wish you had.”
All 30 NHL teams would happily find room for Vanek’s remarkable consistency in their lineups. He has at least 25 goals in each of his eight non-lockout-shortened seasons and has proven himself durable. Not many players can boast those qualities, and you can bet that fact hasn’t escaped Vanek (or agent Stephen Bartlett). This is a man who understands leverage better than most. He’s had it—and used it—every time he’s needed a new contract. July 1 will be no different.
There aren’t many paths to the NHL more atypical than the one Vanek travelled. His father, Zdenek, played professionally in Czechoslovakia before he and his wife, Jarmila, fled to escape the communist regime in 1982. They settled in Austria, where their second son, Thomas, was born. The family was not living among a hockey-loving people, but their youngest boy couldn’t get enough of the game. And he was good at it.Vanek turned heads with his Austrian team at the Quebec peewee tournament and later decided to move to North America at age 14, spending a season with a team in the small farming community of Lacombe, Alta., and a couple more with the United States Hockey League team in Sioux Falls, S.D. When college recruiters eventually started calling, the passion for hockey in Minneapolis helped put the University of Minnesota at the top of his list. Vanek was the Golden Gophers’ first European player in the team’s 81-year history, and the area soon became his adopted home (he met his wife, Ashley, there), which is why he is so often linked in rumours to the Minnesota Wild. Vanek twice topped the Gophers in scoring and led them to an NCAA title in 2003 as a freshman at a Frozen Four tournament played in Buffalo. That’s when the Sabres fell in love with him. And in what is already considered the best draft ever, they selected Vanek fifth overall that summer.When it came time to negotiate his entry-level deal the next year, things did not go smoothly. When the sides started working on a contract in the summer of 2004, a lockout that would wipe out an entire NHL season was on the horizon, and everyone knew some kind of labour war was coming. Among the expected changes were tighter restrictions on rookie contracts, so the Sabres were reluctant to hand out the same bonuses that had been paid to other high draft picks. In a foreshadowing of what he would do as a pro, Vanek maximized his leverage by making noise about potentially jumping to the Brandon Wheat Kings, who owned his Western Hockey League rights. He would have been a free agent after an overage season in major junior, and the Sabres couldn’t possibly let that happen. A deal was finally reached with Buffalo, for the maximum amount allowed.
That first contract ran through the 2006–07 season, one that saw Vanek make good on his enormous potential by scoring 43 goals and 84 points. He was 23 years old and had officially arrived. The Sabres were riding pretty high, too, after a second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference final. But then Daniel Brière and Chris Drury, the team’s highest and third-highest scorers, bolted via free agency in early July. Vanek (Buffalo’s No. 2 scorer) was a restricted free agent who didn’t seem to be as high a priority to management. That was a mistake. Before the sides had even talked, the Edmonton Oilers swooped in and signed Vanek to a whopping $50-million, seven-year offer sheet, instantly making him one of the NHL’s highest-paid players—he received $10 million in the first season alone. The salary cap was supposed to keep player costs down—especially for younger players—but Vanek was once again in the right place at the right time. He sensed an opportunity and took it.
The Sabres were snookered. After losing Brière and Drury, they couldn’t afford to further upset a disappointed fan base by letting Vanek walk—even if the small-market team couldn’t really afford the deal. So rather than receiving four first-round picks as compensation, Buffalo matched Edmonton’s offer sheet. Darcy Regier, the team’s GM at the time, wanted it known that if rival teams “want to shop this way, don’t come here.” To this day, Vanek insists he would sign that offer sheet again.
During the next six seasons, Vanek scored 182 goals and 356 points in 422 games. But judging by the line of questioning in the cramped press room at First Niagara Center as training camp began in September, everyone was a little surprised to see him back. Vanek stood at a podium and wondered aloud why. Although he had already made up his mind to test free agency, he had yet to declare it publicly. Vanek decided that he wouldn’t help write any headlines that day. What irked him was a rumour that had persisted all summer: that he had asked to be traded. “I didn’t approach anyone in the organization to say I want out,” he said. “I just said I want to see where it goes. I’m not ready to re-sign and, to be honest, I don’t know if they’re even ready to re-sign. We just left it at that, and here I am.”
Vanek’s biggest concern then was winning hockey games, but there was no mystery about how the year would play out in Buffalo: There wouldn’t be much winning. By the end of training camp, he was named co-captain along with Steve Ott, but neither would see his way through a trying season with the Sabres. On Oct. 27, Vanek was dealt to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson and a first- and a second-round pick.
Forty-two games later, the entire hockey world knew Vanek had passed on the chance to sign another $50-million, seven-year contract, this time with the Islanders. He knew the motive behind the aggressive offer from Isles GM Garth Snow, how important it was for the organization to realize a significant return on the assets given up to acquire him. And he knew that declining the contract meant he would be traded again.
It wasn’t that Vanek didn’t enjoy his time on Long Island; he genuinely did. After first staying in a hotel, he moved into an apartment complex and brought Ashley and their three sons in from Buffalo. They had all the makings of a new life a short train ride from Manhattan. On the ice, he was as productive as ever and helped form a dynamic line with Kyle Okposo and John Tavares, at least until Tavares’s season-ending knee injury at the Sochi Olympics. Vanek looked at the Islanders’ prospect pool and saw a bright future. He still does.
Yet, when push came to shove, he couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line. The next windfall would have to wait. “I’m sure people will look at it and say, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,’” Vanek said after the story broke in early February. “As I’ve told Garth before, it’s like a breakup: ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ And it really is me wanting to explore this.”
Vanek wasn’t an Islander much longer. On March 5, mere minutes before the trade deadline, he was sent to Montreal for a second-round pick and prospect Sebastien Collberg. Before leaving Long Island, he made it clear that the door would remain open should the team want to take a run at him in free agency. “I like it here,” Vanek said about being traded. “This would be a place I’d consider if it gets to July 1.”
The Canadiens may now be hoping the same thing, but they never set out to get involved in trade talks on Vanek. The asking price was a first-round pick and a top prospect, and even for a team struggling to score at even strength, that seemed a little rich for a rented sniper. However, as the deadline drew closer, the price came down and the deal was sealed in a matter of hours. No hint of Montreal’s interest had leaked before the trade was announced—it caught Vanek by surprise as well. “I heard different teams, and that wasn’t one of them,” he says.
Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens GM, was not only signalling to his players that he considered the Habs a playoff team, he was doing everything he could to make them a serious threat. The message was received, loud and clear. Brière, a former flatmate all those years ago in Buffalo, was the first to text Vanek to tell him how excited everyone in the dressing room was. The mood was more shock than awe. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was a joke,” says Brière. “We were hearing about our team selling off and getting rid of players. Then all of a sudden we find out Thomas Vanek is coming.”
The period of adjustment lasted just six games and ended with a bang once Vanek was placed on the top line alongside Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais. He scored those three goals against Colorado and soon showed himself to be a much better playmaker than the Habs thought they were acquiring—his 19 five-on-five first assists tied him for eighth this season. His presence allowed coach Michel Therrien to spread the offence more evenly around his lineup, and everything seemed to click naturally. Suddenly, Montreal was a team to be reckoned with at the most important time of year.
But no matter how far the Habs go, July 1 looms. That’s when Vanek becomes the most sought-after prize in the NHL’s free-agent market. It’s the day he either heads home to Minnesota or adds to his already considerable riches with another monster deal. Or both. The choice will be his, because, yet again, he has found himself in the right place at the right time, holding all the cards. There will be a press conference with handshakes and big smiles. There may be another new batch of sweaters and hats for his sons to sport proudly on game days. His family will be back together again and bursting with hope about the bright future in front of them.
That will be the day Thomas Vanek reminds us all why his season as a gun for hire was well worth it.