By Kevin Allen
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — A number of NHL players became disillusioned about hockey during the lockout. Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek became re-energized.
Vanek decided to play five weeks for his hometown team of Graz EC in the Austrian league and says that experience restored his love of the game. "Not that I didn't love the game before," he says. "But it made me realize how big the game has gotten over there and how much fun it still is."
Since the NHL relaunched Jan.19, Vanek has been among the NHL's most dynamic performers. He leads the NHL scoring race with 19 points. "I think rejuvenated is a pretty good word for Tomas," Sabres general manager Darcy Regier says.
Vanek had five goals and 10 assists in 11 games in Austria, but mostly what he had was an enjoyable time playing in front of his family and friends.
Vanek lives in the USA year-round, but his parents live in Austria.
"It's a different game over there," Vanek says. "The NHL is the best league in the world, but it's a grind. You sometimes forget, especially if you are losing, or missing the playoffs like we did last year, how fun this game can be. Being back over there, and seeing how the game has grown, takes you back to your roots even as a 28-year-old."
Vanek has three young children and decided to limit himself to five weeks in Austria. But it turned out to be an experience he will never forget. "It was his hometown, and it was huge for him to go," says his agent, Steve Bartlett. "They went from so-so crowds to filling the arena."
Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers and Austrian player Michael Grabner (New York Islanders) also went back. The presence of nine NHLers in the league cranked up the excitement level for fans.
"It was a nice backdrop story to an unfortunate lockout," Bartlett says.
Vanek always has played with Jason Pominville. But late last season, coach Lindy Ruff played that twosome with center Cody Hodgson, who was obtained in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Zack Kassian. Ruff kept them together this season and, with 18 goals in nine games, that trio has been among the league's most dangerous lines.
"He and Jason have always had good chemistry," Regier says. "Now the chemistry is building among the three of them. If you have two guys with chemistry, it's great. If you have three, it's very unusual."
Regier says Vanek's "level of compete is beyond anything I've seen in the past."
Hodgson's ability to set a table has aided both Vanek and Pominville.
"His best asset is that he can move the puck both left and right," Vanek says. "A lot of centermen if they are left-handed they prefer to stay on the forehand side. Cody is right-handed, but he's almost as good on his backhand as he is his forehand. He reads the game well."
Like most hockey players, Vanek doesn't want to overanalyze why the unit works well together.
"We are passing and shooting, and it's going in," he said. "Is that going to change? I'm sure it is. But it's nice for now."