Thomas Vanek, Austria’s most valuable and successful player in the U.S. National Hockey League (NHL), is living the American dream. At age 14 he emigrated to Canada to play hockey. After playing junior hockey for the Sioux Falls Stampede, Vanek became a standout player for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Today, he is one of the top players of the Buffalo Sabres in the NHL and an integral part of the Austrian national hockey team.
Thomas Vanek was born on January 19, 1984 in Baden bei Wien. He grew up in Zell am See and Graz, where his father played professional ice hockey. Although he now lives in Minnesota, his ties with Austria remain strong as his family and friends still live there and help remind him of home with a constant supply of pumpkin seed oil from Styria.
Despite the success and all the media attention Vanek does not seem to have changed much. His aspirations and life style remain the same after signing a seven-year 50 million dollar contract, and he is incredibly down to earth. His ultimate goal is the Stanley Cup, something “money can’t buy.” Yet, what makes Vanek happiest right now is the recent birth of his son Blake.
Thomas Vanek spoke with Austrian Information on November 28, 2007.
Your career has been quite remarkable. I think the first thing we all want to know is how it all started. You went to North America as a 14 year-old boy. What was your motivation for that?
My goal was always to play in the National Hockey League and obviously when I was 14, I had an option to go to Canada and play hockey there, live with a host family and learn the language. It was an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up, and I took advantage of it. The first couple of months were a little tough because I didn’t know any English, but the family I lived with and the hockey I was able to play was great. That’s what made me happy and kept me motivated.
In 2001, a number of colleges and even the ice hockey nation Slovakia were interested in you. Was your decision to play for Minnesota the beginning of your version of the American dream?
I think my American dream started the day I moved to Canada. I didn’t go there just for fun. Obviously, I had a good time, but there was more to come. After that I moved on and played with the Sioux Falls Stampede in the USHL, which is the highest junior league here in the United States. I played there for three years, and I grew a lot as a person and as a player. When it was time to decide on colleges, I had a few options. Minnesota was the best choice for me, and I am happy I went there. It was a great two years.
This summer you signed your new contract with the Buffalo Sabres - what has changed for you since becoming Austria’s most famous and one of the NHL’s most valuable and successful hockey players?
Nothing at all actually. I never look at personal success. Really it was always my dream to play in the NHL and once I made that dream happen, the new goal was and still is to win the Stanley Cup and then go as far as one can go with the team every year. Concerning the new contract, many people think that I have changed, but I am still the same person. I still have the same car, the same house, the same goals and that’s more or less it.
The Sabres have had somewhat of a rough season so far. Last week you won against the Montreal Canadians and the Washington Capitals. You had two assists and a goal. Is this the turning point?
I really think so. The first ten games we started out a little slow. It took some getting used to after losing a few players, but the last twelve games we have been playing really well as a team. Concerning myself, my game has picked up. I am playing more consistently and finally scoring some goals. I hope I can continue doing that.
You were awarded the Austrian sports award “Sportler des Jahres” (Sportsman of the Year) on October 25. Having been in the U.S. for such a long time, what are your ties to Austria?
The award really means a lot to me. When I found out that I was “Sportler des Jahres,” it was a big thrill. It’s the greatest award I have ever won. If you look at the history of it and who won the award before me, it’s a list that is quite impressive. I am not too focused on awards right now though; I want to accomplish a lot more in my career. Like I said before, my goal right now is to win the Stanley Cup, and once I retire, maybe I can look back at this award and really acknowledge what I did.
My ties to Austria today remain strong. I have a lot of friends that I still keep in touch with; my family still lives there, and I go there in the summer to visit and see everyone. Hopefully, I can play in a few more championships for Austria and maybe one day even the Olympics. These are all the things I want to do before I retire hopefully in fifteen years.
Since we are already talking about Austria’s national hockey team, what do you think about the state of ice hockey in Austria?
I think it is growing. I am sure that my success here, and that of other players like Thomas Pöck and others who have been drafted and are playing well, are promoting the sport and are making it more popular in Austria. Young kids who really enjoy hockey now see that they don’t have to quit the game by the time they are fifteen or sixteen. They can get motivated at a very young age and then take the dream all the way to the NHL. It is possible, and that’s why each year ice hockey as a sport has grown. Hopefully, with continuing success, we will be able make the Olympics and stay in the A pool in the world championship for years to come. That’s a good goal for Austria to have. I think ice hockey in Austria is just going to continue to grow and get better.
Your son Blake was born recently. What has changed for you since starting a family?
It changes the whole focus of your life. All of a sudden things are different. Hockey was always number one on my list, that was the reason I changed my life at a very young age. Once Blake was born on August 16, my life changed. I looked at him, and I loved him from the first minute on. From then on your whole day, your whole life kind of revolves around him. That’s a great thing to have, and I hope every dad feels the same. Hockey is still very high on my list, but not as high any more as it was three months ago when he wasn’t born yet.
Are you going to show him Austria and speak German with him?
Absolutely. My fiancée is from Minnesota and doesn’t speak German. When I am around him though I speak German. I think it’s important for him to speak both languages. We will continue to go home every summer, and it’s going to be nice for him eventually to be able to communicate in both languages. That’s why I put a big emphasis on it.
Is there still anything in particular that you miss about Austria having been in the U.S. for so long?
The culture is different here, but I have adjusted to the American lifestyle. I still see myself as European and American, I am a mix of both. I miss home and enjoy it very much when I go home in the summer and get home cooked meals from my mom. Those are hard to get here.
- By Robert Birnecker
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