When the Sabres gave most of their players off Sunday morning in advance of their game against the Boston Bruins, Thomas Vanek took full advantage to check in on the culmination of a career dream.
After asking his Twitter followers for a link to a Web stream, Vanek called up the broadcast of Austria’s 3-2 overtime loss to Germany in an Olympic qualifier tournament in Berlin. Never has a loss been more meaningful: Even with the result, Vanek’s homeland has qualified for the Sochi Games next February.
“It’s huge, just huge,” Vanek said this week while in Ottawa with the Sabres. “I saw when I went over there,” during the NHL lockout “how the game is growing. The effort the guys put into this to get to Sochi will really raise awareness that hockey exists in Austria. It’s tremendous. With the money they’ll get from going to the Olympics, the hope is that the Austrian federation will put it to the right places and get even bigger.”
The Austrians simply needed to avoid a regulation loss to qualify after already posting wins over Italy and Netherlands in the tourney and the result eliminated archrival Germany. It was a stunning setback for the Germans, who had qualified for every Olympics save for bans in 1920, 1924 and 1948 due to the two world wars.
Austria has not qualified for the Olympics since finishing 12th in Salt Lake City in 2002 (when Vanek was an 18-year-old playing for Sioux Falls in the USHL). It hasn’t had a top-10 finish since ending eighth in Calgary in 1988.
So this is a rare chance for Vanek, the most decorated player in Austrian hockey history, to get on the world stage. Is he playing? Do you have to ask?
“For sure. As long as I make the team,” Vanek said with a laugh. “I would love to play and represent Austria. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. We’re going to have to wait and see. I can’t really imagine. I would be tremendously honored and excited to represent Austria.”
The question of whether NHL players will compete in Sochi was not determined by the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. In fact, meetings are set to begin today in New York with the NHL, the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL Players’ Association to determine logistics for next year.
It’s generally accepted that the NHL will have its players participate but the league wants more opportunities to have access to its players and content for platforms like NHL.com and NHLPA.com. The IOC has had airtight control in the past and the league wants a more liberal approach.
Vanek continues to lead NHL players in scoring with 23 points (South Buffalo native Patrick Kane of Chicago entered Wednesday second with 20). Vanek has an NHL-high 11 goals, one ahead of San Jose’s Patrick Marleau. Vanek has, however, gone pointless in the last two games, his first such stretch this season.
Austria’s pool in Sochi will include Canada, Finland and Norway. (The United States is with Slovenia, Russia and Slovakia). Vanek is expected to join Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders and Carolina’s Andreas Nodl on the Austrian team.
After the game on his Twitter account (@T_Vanek26), Vanek tweeted “Congrats to #TeamAustria! Unbelievable! I’m sooo proud of the guys! #ProudAustrian”
“It was really nerve-wracking,” Vanek said. “The Olympics are something everyone dreams about as a kid. At least I did. Growing up, the Olympics are such a big deal. To get a chance to be there is a dream come true. I felt like a little kid again watching the game.”
While Sabres fans have come to be thrilled with Vanek’s performance on a nightly basis, it’s easy for them to forget how big the star winger is in his homeland.
Vanek left Austria for North America at 14 in 1998. He was named Austrian Sportsman of the Year in 2007 after his 43-goal season for the Sabres, a huge honor normally reserved for the country’s famed skiers. No hockey player had ever been so honored.
Daily updates of his results with the Sabres are displayed on the website of the Austrian federation and Buffalo games are routinely broadcast back to Austria after midnight.
Austrian journalist Christian Schleifer has worked with Vanek for many years on his website and supervising a Facebook page (which doubled in likes during Vanek’s first week playing in Austria in November). He also co-authored Vanek’s 2009 book “Das Spiel Meines Lebens” (The Game of My Life). It was published in German and became No. 1 on German Amazon.com upon its release.
“Having the national team at the Olympics is very important for Austria because we usually don’t get a lot of teams in any sport to Olympics,” Schleifer wrote in an email to The News Wednesday from Vienna. “People are already drooling over a team sporting Vanek, Grabner and Nodl. … People know that just one victory at the Olympics would be kind of a miracle, but everybody’s looking forward to the match-up with Canada.”
“You really got a taste of how much it’s Vanek Nation over there,” said Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers, who played against Vanek in the Austrian league in November. “He’s the man, the star player. I’m sure he’s going to get even bigger now with what’s happened at the start of this season here.”
Schleifer said the influx of NHL players during the lockout was a huge benefit to Austrian youth hockey because of the skill the players exhibited. And Vanek’s decision to play for his hometown team in Graz was a seminal moment for the Austrian league.
“Thomas’ time in Graz was fantastic — for him, the fans and the sport in general,” Schleifer wrote. “Hockey was suddenly exposed to a much bigger audience. Tickets for games against Graz sold out in a matter of one or two days. Graz themselves had consecutive sellouts for a month in God knows how long. During an autograph session at a very big local sports store, Vanek’s autograph cards,” 1,000 pieces, “were gone in a matter of an hour and people were still queuing out the store and onto the parking lot. The first batch of his Graz jersey also sold out before the delivery even reached the club.”
Vanek has told anyone who has asked in recent weeks how much he felt his 11 games back home helped him reconnect with his sport and improved his outlook returning to the NHL.
“If you play the game for so long, you can lose the focus of what the game really is,” Vanek said. “Yeah, we get paid well. Is it our job? Yeah. But at the same time, I left at 14 to chase a dream. That’s to make the NHL and win a Stanley Cup. Sometimes you lose sight of what got you there. I’m very proud of where I came from.”
The Sabres were off Wednesday and return to practice this morning in First Niagara Center.
Also qualifying last weekend for Sochi were Slovenia and Latvia – which is coached by former Sabres boss Ted Nolan.