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Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

Austria's Man, Through and Through

Thomas Vanek was the first (and sole) Austrian ever drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. Nine years after being drafted, he’s now one of the longest-tenured roster players with the organization and last season wore the ‘A’ under Jason Pominville’s captainship.

Vanek was born in Graz, Austria on January 19, 1984. Throughout his youth, his father played ice hockey – so the sport was never exactly something new to him.

At the age of fourteen, he moved to the United States and began playing for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. Vanek spent three years with the Stampede, scoring 80 goals and 73 assists in 108 games. He also played 14 games with the Rochester Junior Americans of the NAHL in 1999-2000, scoring 6 goals and 4 assists.

He then joined the University of Minnesota’s Golden Gophers for the 2002-03 season.

In his first year with the Gophers, Vanek led the team with 31 goals and 31 assists in 45 games. They went on to play in the NCAA Frozen Four in none other than Buffalo that year – a sign of good things to come, for certain. The Gophers won the title over the University of New Hampshire, and Vanek was named MVP of the tournament.

He became the first freshman to be named Minnesota’s team MVP that year, scoring the most points by a Gophers freshman since 1980 and leading all NCAA freshmen in goal scoring.

Just over two months after winning the Frozen Four would come another important moment in Vanek’s hockey career: the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, hosted by the Nashville Predators.

Going into the draft, Vanek was considered on the top prospects, and the results didn’t fail. As Marc-Andre Fleury went to the Pittsburgh Penguins with the first overall pick, then Eric Staal to Carolina with pick two, Vanek was selected fifth overall by the Buffalo Sabres. And just like that, the arena where he’d won the Frozen Four would become his home.

(Other notable players selected in that draft: Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown, Zach Parise and Brent Seabrook.)

Of all the players that the Sabres drafted that year, Vanek is the sole one remaining on the team now.

Despite being drafted, Vanek returned to Minnesota that fall to continue his career with the Gophers and achieved fairly comparable numbers to his pre-draft season. In 38 games, he had 26 goals and 25 assists. He also had 72 penalty minutes, the most of any season in his career (tied in ’05-’06 with Buffalo.)

Vanek would then forego the remainder of his college career and join the Rochester Americans of the AHL. There, Vanek would play among the likes of future Sabres teammates Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad, along with Nathan Paetsch, Rory Fitzpatrick and Ryan Miller.

He’d end a successful AHL seaason with 42 goals, 26 assists, 62 penalty minutes and a minus-1 rating in 74 games played. It was this impressive season that would place him in the Sabres’ roster for the 2005-06 season.

The left winger would had a solid rookie season. He played 81 games and scored 25 goals and 23 assists. The 48 points earned that year would be the lowest of his NHL career, as he’d score at least 50 points in each of the next six seasons.

After tallying 48 points that year, he’d score an outstanding 84 points in the next season, and it’d see Vanek play in all 82 games and have the best year (statistically) of his career with an average of just over a point per game. 43 goals, 41 assists and 84 points would be the highest numbers of his NHL career to date. He also finished the season a plus-47, best in the league, and was named to the NHL Young Stars game.

He’d also score 10 points in 16 playoff games that year.

The 2007 off-season would see the Edmonton Oilers sign Vanek to a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet. The Sabres matched the offer, and Vanek returned to Buffalo once again in the fall.

The following season would be another in which Vanek would play all 82 games – the last such season since then. He’d score 36 goals and 28 assists, a slight dip in his production after signing the new contract. In ’08-’09 he’d put up comparable numbers: 64 points, but this time in only 73 games.

January 2009 saw Vanek named to the NHL All-Star Game. Just days later, his jaw was fractured during a game against the Ottawa Senators as a slapshot by Anton Volchenkov forced him to undergo surgery.

Although the offseason was undoubtedly a tough one (fractured jaw – let’s see YOU try to eat and maintain your physique with that!), Vanek returned to the Sabres lineup for the following season…. but once again, injuries would force him to the sidelines.

Despite missing a few games early in the season, he’d end up playing 71 games that season, scoring 53 points (28-25). He’d also manage three points in three playoff games.

The next season would be another good one, as Vanek tallied 73 points in 80 games. Prior to this season, the Austrian was given an ‘A’ as Jason Pominville was named team captain. Although he suffered several minor injuries that would force him out for a period or two at a time, often resulting in him starting a game but being unable to finish, Vanek played 78 games this past season.

He scored 26 goals, 35 assists and 61 points – second on the team in all those categories. He also led the team with 10 power play goals and tied Pominville with five game-winners.

In his career, he’s on a .82 points/game set (slightly better than Rick Nash, and better than Evgeni Malkin, for what it’s worth.) 447 points in 547 games – and this is still the beginning for Vanek, as he’s becoming a veteran presence on the Sabres’ bench and if he can work on his consistency, will prove to be a vital asset to the team.

Oh – and don’t forget how he was named Austrian Sportsman of the year in 2007. Vanek was also the first Austrian to be drafted in the first round of the NHL draft, and also the first from his country to be named an NHL All-Star. He’s following in the footsteps of the likes of Christoph Brandner, who was the first Austrian to score a goal in the NHL but now plays in his home country, and Reinhard Divis, a goaltender who was the first Austrian player in the NHL (2001).

Vanek is no longer the only Austrian in the NHL and has said on his website that he wants to remain in Buffalo for the rest of his career (and win a Stanley Cup here, of course). He’s a player that everyone should be proud of, so Buffalonians and Austrians alike take note, and get ready for October.

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