Austria’s surprising gift to the world of hockey

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Buffalo Sabres' left winger Thomas Vanek, of Austria, celebrates his goal against the Florida Panthers during the first period of an NHL game in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. (Gary Wiepert/AP)

It is an astonishing list of the accomplished that Austria has given the world.

Composers such as Mozart, Strauss, Schubert, Haydn. Bankers like the Rothschilds. Mendel, the geneticist. The poet Rilke, Klimt the great artist, Otto Preminger the acclaimed film director, Thomas Vanek the leading scorer in the National Hockey League.

Story continues below ad

Again?

Yes, an Austrian is the leading scorer in the game Canada invented and America sells.

It is a remarkable story: a 29-year-old Austrian running away with the scoring race in the early going, his 19 points entering the Buffalo Sabres’ Tuesday night game against the Ottawa Senators three points in front of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, six ahead of Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and seven in front of last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner, Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin.

“It’s a lot of luck,” Vanek says. “Let’s be honest. There’s going to be times when you have the same games and end up with zero.”

But not lately, not when playing on a line with 30-year-old Jason Pominville of Repentigny, Que.,and 22-year-old Cody Hodgson of tiny Haliburton, Ont.

“In this game,” says the quiet Austrian, “you can’t do anything on your own. It’s a cliché but it’s true. You’ve got to have good linemates.”

Vanek and Pominville played well as a pair last year but lacked the sort of centre who could do his own hard digging and cash in on the often-surprising passes that come from the two slick wingers.

“I’m just trying to fit in,” Hodgson says. “They do a great job getting pucks to me. I just try to complement them.”

“We found the right middle,” Vanek says.

“They’ve got great chemistry,” says Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff. “They just seem to know where each other’s at right now.”

Ruff says that people should hardly be as surprised by Vanek’s rise as they often seem to be. This is his eighth season in the league and he has never scored less than 25 goals.

“He’s always sort of seemed under-rated,” Ruff says.

“He’s just got an intensity about him,” says Hodgson of his high-scoring linemate.

“Dangerous every time he touches the puck,” adds Ruff. “He’s dynamic. He’s as dangerous as any player in this league.”

Vanek was born in Vienna and played his minor hockey in Austria. His father had moved there from Czechoslovakia and began a professional hockey career that took the family to several different centres.

At 14, showing enormous promise as a player, young Vanek moved to the United States and played high school and junior hockey in Sioux Falls, S.D., and then college hockey for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, where he led them to the National Collegiate Athletic Association national championship.

In 2003, Vanek was the fifth overall draft pick when Buffalo selected him in the amateur draft. A year later, he was playing for Austria in the world championships.

(In an intriguing twist, he was wooed by Slovakia, as his mother comes from there. Had Vanek’s scoring touch been available to the Slovaks in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, Canada might not be the defending Olympic champions. He chose Austria, his birthplace, and has remained loyal ever since, even returning to play in the country during the 2012 lockout.)

In the NHL, Vanek’s skills and strength – and remarkable ability to tip shots into nets – were quickly noticed. He had a tremendous season in 2006-07 when he scored 43 goals and had the top plus-minus (plus 47) in the NHL. The Edmonton Oilers came after him as his contract in Buffalo ran out, signing him to a seven-year, $50-million (all currency U.S.) offer sheet that the outraged Sabres felt they had to match, having already lost star forwards Daniel Brière and Chris Drury to free agency.

With his first season paying a stunning $10-million – and the current season coming in at $6.4-million – Vanek’s play has been closely scrutinized, and often criticized, by fans, especially when his scoring slipped badly in the first year of the deal.

But that was then and this is now. He rides at the top of NHL scoring and, barring injuries, should remain at or near the top for the shortened season.

Where his Buffalo Sabres end up is another matter. They came into this game against the Ottawa Senators with an unimpressive 3-5-1 record and decided to start backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth, who was unimpressive in a 4-3 loss.

The Senators scored easily on him – Erik Karlsson, Chris Phillips, Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Neil – while the Sabres could only mount a third-period comeback that came up just short on goals by Tyler Ennis, Jordan Leopold and Pominville.

Vanek, for once, could not supply his usual goal a game.

“The tough part,” he says, “is that the team is not doing as well as I would like.”

It’s fun being the top scorer – but not much fun getting scored on so often.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

Topics: