There are hometowns, home junior teams and home colleges for every Sabre. But save for Ryan Miller's two weeks last February in Vancouver, no one in Buffalo's dressing room has had a nation's eyes following him like Thomas Vanek.
Vanek left Austria for North America at 14 in 1998 at a time when hockey was not big in his homeland. And while Austria is hardly a major European force, the sport is growing and Vanek is at the forefront.
"I never looked at it that I would be the one helping the sport, but I know that each year I go back in the summer I'm more and more recognizable," Vanek said. "People are great there and it's no different than being here. People love the sport, love sports in general."
Whatever Vanek does makes news in Austria.
"When Thomas scores a goal in the NHL, you always get to see it on national state TV in the evening," said Austrian journalist Christian Schleifer, who has followed Vanek's career for many years and worked closely on his Web site (www.thomasvanek.at) and biography.
"When he was drafted in 2003, there was still just a small write-up in the newspapers and it was like, 'That's great, see you in a few years if you're ever going to make it.' When he made it, things got bigger by the year. By [2006-07] when he had 43 goals, the playoff games were all on TV until 5 a.m."
Vanek was named Austrian Sportsman of the Year in 2007, a huge honor normally reserved for the country's famed skiers like Hermann Maier.
"That was the first time ever for a hockey player," said Schleifer, speaking recently by phone from Vienna. "He's a big star. That shows you what Thomas means to this country."
> String of injuries
The reports that went home last season mostly chronicled the injury problems that held Vanek to a career-low 71 games and to 28 goals, his lowest total since 2005-06.
Vanek dealt with a shoulder injury in October, internal bleeding in December after taking a shot to the midsection and a nagging groin injury in March. It wasn't until the second-last game of the season, a four-goal outburst at Ottawa, that Vanek was fully healthy.
Of course, then came the infamous Game Two takedown by Boston's Johnny Boychuk that wrecked Vanek's ankle and Buffalo's playoff hopes. The ankle was twisted when the two hit the boards and Boychuk then stepped on it, cutting into the muscles. Had the tendon been cut, Vanek might still be out. A hobbled Vanek returned to score a goal in Game Six but his skating was clearly limited.
"We did all we could for me to get back," he said. "I would do it again. In the skate, the leg felt better. It was like a cast. We taped it up like a basketball player. I didn't have much mobility in it but I felt OK enough to be out there."
Vanek said he did very little for about a month after the Game Six loss in Boston other than elevate the leg and let the swelling go down.
Coach Lindy Ruff challenged him after the season to improve his conditioning, with Vanek pointing out he's working to add to his endurance.
Vanek is again hoping to be a 40- to 50-goal player and it will be a big year for him off the ice too. He's going to be able to field a full line of little forwards come this winter. His wife, Ashley, is expecting twin boys in November to go with their 3-year-old son, Blake.
> Game of life
Vanek was on a 50-plus goal pace in 2008-09 before he suffered a broken jaw during a February game in Ottawa. Less than a week later, Continental Flight 3407 crashed in Clarence near the homes of Vanek and several other Sabres, killing all 49 people aboard.
The next night, the Sabres had a memorable home game against San Jose that turned into a community gathering. After a haunting moment of silence, Buffalo went on to an emotional shootout victory.
Vanek watched in the press box, unable to speak with his jaw wired shut. That night is the premise of Vanek's book "Das Spiel Meines Lebens" (The Game of My Life). Through events of the day capped by the game, Vanek and co-author Schleifer reflect back on Vanek's career to that point.
"I thought it would be great to do it now," said Schleifer, who pitched the idea to the initially hesitant Vanek. "He's at the top of his prominence in Austria right now.
"The publisher wanted it to be a book to show how to motivate yourself and the whole rags to riches story that he was. He grew up with basically nothing and became a multimillionaire. If you show an iron will and motivation, you can achieve your dream. It's like a midterm survey of how he is now."
Vanek admitted he was surprised by the proposal.
"Christian's concept was that it was not a biography but more a teaching tool for young kids, and that's why I agreed on doing it," Vanek said. "People back home wanted me to write a book, but I was 26 and I was thinking I'd wait 10 years.
"But his concept was geared towards younger kids. Everyone can read it but kids can get the message of what it takes to have goals, set goals in life. I thought maybe 50 kids would buy it but it's been surprisingly big."
> Book big back home
The book was published only in German and Schleifer said it reached No. 1 on German Amazon.com upon its release.
"The critics were quite surprised," Schleifer said. "It's not your usual run-of-the-mill biography. It's Thomas watching every minute thinking about something that happened in his life because he can't talk. I printed out the whole box score, highlighted the most important moments of that game and then we related topics from his life to that situation."
Over the summer, Vanek returned to Austria and was greeted in Zell am See and Graz, the small town and large city in which he spent his childhood. He was greeted by hundreds of people in Zell am See, receiving a rifle salute in the town square, and was given a citizenship award. The next day, he headed to Graz for a book signing.
"Hundreds of people showed up in the mall with books in hand and Sabres jerseys and T-shirts," Schleifer said.
"It was amazing," Vanek said. "I never thought it would be like that because hockey isn't that big yet. It's a growing sport. We have more and more kids leaving for North America, Sweden and Finland. Once I made it, I knew I could have an impact for other kids. That's the most fun, to have that impact."
Vanek hopes Austrians some day might see him with a Stanley Cup. Schleifer dreams of Vanek and the Cup in Graz.
"I can only imagine what it would be like," Schleifer said. "There would be thousands of people in the streets. It's a city of 200,000 and fans would come from all over. He had 4,000 to 5,000 just for a book signing. You can imagine all of Zell am See would be there."