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.