Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thomas Vanek Makes Me Happy

I remember the first interview Thomas Vanek did with WGR after the Sabres matched his offer from Edmonton like it happened yesterday. He came across as genuinely thrilled that the Oilers thought enough of him to make the offer they did and even more thrilled that the Sabres thought enough of him to immediately match it. He sounded like a big, dumb, sweet kid and I got the distinct impression that he had no idea what he had just gotten himself into. Huge money, huge years, huge expectations. When he struggled out of the gate last season, I felt really bad for him in a way that I've rarely felt for a professional athlete. Vanek was clearly trying really hard to live up to his contract and the more pressure he put on himself, the more he struggled. All kinds of people - yeah, you know who you are - were complaining loudly that the Sabres were stupid to keep Vanek over the pile of draft picks they've could've gotten from Edmonton and while Vanek never shied away from the criticism, he seemed to take a lot of it to heart. Even if he wasn't reading or listening to specifics, he clearly felt like he was letting everyone down. On locker clean out day he was looking at an extra long off-season and saying, "This is my fault."

Obviously, he's like a new player this season. He finally seems to have settled in to his skin a little bit. He looks and sounds more confident and comfortable and you know what? While it feels a little silly to say this about someone I've never even had a conversation with and probably never will, I'm really, really happy for Thomas. Unlike many of his teammates, he learned from the frustration and disappointment of last season and busted his ass from day one this season in an effort to make it right. As a fan I think all we can really ask of players is for them to care and he clearly does. It really, truly, genuinely makes me happy to see him being so successful. Isn't it strange how sports can make you care so much, positive or negative, about someone who is, at the end of the day, a perfect stranger to you?

Both of Vanek's goals tonight were beauties and the confidence and swagger emanated from HSBC, right through my TV. But what I love about him most, I think, is how low-key his swagger is. It's not loud and in-your-face. He's not bouncing himself off the glass and pointing at the crowd. He does his thing and then he skates to the bench. He's done it before and he'll do it again, no problem. Kate and I were talking about him via email tonight and when I made the above observation she said, "He has swagger but no cockiness," and I thought that was the perfect way to say it. Confidence galore but no cockiness and no ego. He's likable and while I know most pro athletes would hate to be described this way, sweet. I really don't know how anyone could not be happy for this kid.

Make no mistake, Vanek is special. When I watch a game like tonight's and I think about how young he is yet and I think about how many years he has to grow and I think about him doing much of that growing in Buffalo, I get a happy fluttery feeling in my heart. Say what you want about Sabres management, I think Vanek was exactly the right player to build a team around. I don't care if keeping him meant losing Chris Drury or Daniel Briere or Brian Campbell. I don't care if it means the team needs a year or two to pull the needed talent together around him. It's worth it. It bothered me that Vanek was being treated like a second class citizen by the Versus announcers the other night but now I don't even care if he never gets the press that some of his contemporaries already get. He deserves all the attention in the world but I'm just fine knowing that we have our own unappreciated gem in Buffalo. I'd say being overlooked and underappreciated makes him a pretty good fit for us.


GregK said...

You just came pretty close to cheating on Hank. What's up with that?

Jennifer said...

I know, Hank probably read this and is sitting in a corner crying right now. Heather, how could you?

But you are so right. Vanek is not flashy or cocky, just talented and doing what needs to be done, whether he gets praised for it or not.

Morgaine said...

one thing to support your point, Heather - i know that this is common when a goal has a good setup, but right after the breakaway goal, Vanek pointed right at Kotalik as he arrived for the celebration to acknowledge his contribution. as you said, better something like that than bouncing off the glass and excessive fist-pumping, no?

Pookie said...

But what I love about him most, I think, is how low-key his swagger is. It's not loud and in-your-face. He's not bouncing himself off the glass and pointing at the crowd.

Yes, but how do we know he loves hockey otherwise? He must hate it. It must be drudgery for him to play the game. So sad.


Anne M said...

I totally agree, and I get really irritated with the people who want to blame him for everything that went down last summer. Especially when those same people refuse to eat any of their words this season, and instead find other things to criticize (did you see that Bucky gave him crap for not scoring from 20 feet out? WTF is that about?). Never mind that Vanek is starting to look like Briere and Drury all rolled up into one--scoring timely goals and showing up defensively (Drury), throwing in a pretty one now and then (Briere), and leading this team by example.

Anonymous said...

Seriously absolutely phenomenal piece. I felt bad for Vanek last year too and I wasn’t sure why. But I’ve thought for a while that he was going to be this player. He didn’t come in like Sid or Ovechkin, but he’s show flashes. Management took the PR hit of losing Briere, Drury and Campbell to make sure they had Vanek, Pominville, Miller and Roy. I still think they could’ve kept one to ease last year a little, but they didn’t and they have good young talent in Portland and it’s going to be a lot of fun watching this core of players grow up right now and Vanek’s there. I’m right there with you. Great stuff.

toontom said...

Vanek's resurgence is why Lindy Ruff should never, ever be fired. It was Ruff who decided to give TV a bigger role, play him on PK and make him play two way hockey. He's turned Vanek into a master player because of that. The goal TV scored off the bench last night showed how much he has learned about the game and that can only come from having a good coach.

Vanek's Hair said...

To all those who, two years ago said I was crazy to assert that the Sabres smartest offseason move would be to lock Vanek up long term, even if it were at the expense of Drury and Briere: Who's crazy now?

Vanek is the one prediction I have ever actually been right on. Even back in '03 when he single-handedly carried Minnesota to a Frozen Four championship I could see he was going to be a star. During the lockout he was a man among boys in the AHL every time I watched the Amerks. Safe to say, he is good at hockey.

I wouldn't mind a bit more flair out of him. But that's because I am an obnoxious jerk. It's not his style and that's OK.

Jennifer said...

...I am an obnoxious jerk.

You, an obnoxious jerk, nooooooooo!

Mark B said...

Trying to think of something original to add to this conversation, but I think it's all been covered. But I'll just say that even though Thomas isn't the flashiest player out there, he still marvels me with his unbelievable creativity. It's shocking to see a big man like him pull off such eye-popping moves and stickhandling. I really feel awfully proud of him too.

I think we made the right decision matching the offer ;-)

Heather B. said...

Greg and Jennifer, just settle down, all right? :P Hank's still my boy but he's a different player who serves a different role. Vanek is a franchise player and it's really cool to be able to watch him develop from a baby draft pick to a dependable star. (Not that he's fully developed yet! Hopefully he's still getting better.)

Anne, in Bucky's defense (three words I never thought I'd say in that order), if I'm thinking of the same column as you, I read Bucky's remark less as a complaint about how Vanek was scoring his goals and more as a comment on that being the way you have to score goals in the NHL now. Very few perimeter shots get through the bodies in front of the net etc. Now let's never speaking of me defending Bucky again!

I do totally agree with you about Vanek turning into a nice combo of Drury and Briere though.

toontom, I totally agree with you too. I'm too lazy to look for it now but I'm pretty positive I wrote somewhere way back when that one of the few things that really made me feel okay about Vanek's contract was that Lindy Ruff was his coach.

Vanek's Hair, I can't believe you got through that whole glowing comment without mentioning Vanek's golden, flowing locks. You're slipping.

I'm glad you guys liked this one. I wasn't entirely sure I really quite captured what I was trying to say. Thanks!

Vanek's Hair said...

Vanek's Hair, I can't believe you got through that whole glowing comment without mentioning Vanek's golden, flowing locks. You're slipping.

He still has a great head of hair, I figured it went without saying. But, I will say the flowing blonde hair (which I recommended as goalie mask decoration for my beer league goalie "Goalie Nick") is in top form this season also.

HOWEVER, Vanek's hair (lowercase) was not as styling the Bill Cosby sweater former President Bill Clinton wore at the game last night.

Jennifer said...

Greg and Jennifer, just settle down, all right? :P Hank's still my boy...

Whew! I was scared I was going to be his only fan. He's no Vanek, but Vanek could never match Hank's smile.

Heather B. said...

Jennifer, Hank has intangibles, it's true :) At heart I'm still more appreciative of defense (though I am very appreciate of Vanek scoring goals since we DO need at least some and he has like 78% of our totals*). While I love Vanek the Penalty Killing Back-Checker, he's still no d-man.

*Not an actual stat

Katie said...

I know I'm a little late to the party, but great post, Heather!

I agree with everything you said about Vanek. Last season, it broke my heart to see him struggle in a way that I've never felt in the world of sports. I think it's because of how much we all knew that he wanted to do well for us.

This season, I think what makes me happier than anything is that he truly is "confident but not cocky." I love that he acts like he's been there before; sometimes I forget that he's only 24!