NEW YORK – There is far more to Thomas Vanek than we expected.
Even his passport is more complex and impressive than we knew.
Sure, Vanek was born in Vienna and is considered by far the greatest player in Austrian hockey history.
But his family and hockey roots are from the Czech Republic, where his father, Zdenek, played professionally. And Vanek’s most important minor hockey season was spent in Lacombe, Alta., outside of Red Deer, where a Canadian hockey friend of his dad knew a family that would take him at age 14 so he could learn the game in Canada.
At 15, Vanek moved to Sioux Falls, S.D., to play in the United States Hockey League, and three years later the winger became a fifth-overall draft pick out of the University of Minnesota by the Buffalo Sabres. And Minnesota is where Vanek, his wife Ashley and their three boys have a home.
"I wanted to play hockey in Canada," Vanek, 33, says. "My parents supported me and said: ‘Go try it, and if it doesn’t work out, you can come home in two days, two weeks, it doesn’t matter.’ The hardest part for me is I love to talk and joke around and, at 14, I really didn’t know any English. But the family I stayed with had a son my age and a younger daughter. He became my best friend, and his friends became my friends. I still keep in touch with them, see them when we play in Edmonton or Calgary.
"My dream coming from Austria was to play in the NHL and win a Stanley Cup, and I’m still chasing the Cup."
Oddly, Vanek figured he might yet achieve that by signing a free-agent contract with the Vancouver Canucks on Sept. 1.
The Canucks became Vanek’s seventh NHL team in less than four years, so the former 40-goal scorer seemed more red flag than red light when general manager Jim Benning tossed him a one-year, $2-million contract at the end of the summer.
Apart from the screeching it caused on social media that the Canucks were depriving a younger player of development time by adding a veteran near the end of his career, Vanek had disappointed some of the teams he’d played for.
The Minnesota Wild bought out the final season of a three-year, $19.5-million contract it gave Vanek in 2014, which allowed him to sign before last season with the Detroit Red Wings, who dealt him at the trade deadline to the Florida Panthers. He scored twice in 20 games in South Florida.
Vanek has played 908 games in the NHL and grossed $75 million, but has never been to a Stanley Cup Final.
So there was, naturally, a wariness regarding Vanek when the Canucks signed him. What could he really offer a rebuilding team during the downslope of his career?
Well, for starters, five goals and 15 points through 23 games. Only rookie Brock Boeser has been more productive for the Canucks in terms of points per minute. Playing on the third or fourth line, Vanek is averaging only 13:18 of ice time, which ranks 12th among Vancouver forwards who have played at least five games.
But beyond his scoring, Vanek has looked fully engaged, displaying guile and tradecraft, and leading by example by playing hard without complaint each night even when his low ice time makes little sense. (Checking forward Brendan Gaunce has gone 82 games without a goal, yet is getting 14:14 a night from coach Travis Green).
Vanek is strong on the puck, his playmaking is better than expected, and his robust work in front of the net has helped the power play.
"My game has grown into something a little bit different than it used to be," Vanek says. "I used to be more of a scorer that played with good players, who tried to set me up. But over the years, as teams kind of let the young guys go, you’ve got to become more of a secondary-scoring guy, which I’m completely fine with.
"Would I like to be playing at the 16-minute mark on average? Sure, but every player wants to play more. I think I’ve learned to not worry about it and the shifts I do get, be productive. Is it harder to score? For sure it is. The chances you get are less than when you’re playing 17 or 18 minutes, but you just have to make the most of it."
Vanek spoke with Green in July, weeks before he decided where to play, and says he knew the Canucks would be better than most people predicted.
He says bouncing between teams has been difficult on his family – his eldest child is 10 – and knows that he could be traded again if Benning decides to leverage moveable assets at the deadline.
But Vanek is having fun with the Canucks and still feels he can contribute, which he is proving.
"I don’t feel like I’m just hanging on to playing," he says. "At this point in my career, I’m not playing for money anymore. I want to win. I want to have success. As far as the future, I’m just really having fun with this year and trying to do my best. And whatever happens next summer, I’ll look into that."