AMHERST — Right now, Thomas Vanek’s a bit torn. Like the other Sabres, the winger simply wants to play NHL games. But Vanek might have the most intriguing option of any locked-out player.
Vanek can return home to play in his native Austria, where he’s a national hero. The 28-year-old has never played professionally at home. He left for North America 14 years ago.
His arrival would be a huge deal.
“It would be a change. It would be definitely fun,” Vanek said Thursday inside the Northtown Center after skating with about eight other Sabres. “But again, I would love to play here in Buffalo. I’m here with my family. We’re settled. That would be more exciting to me.”
For some perspective on Vanek’s iconic status, consider when he scores a goal for the Sabres, it’s shown on Austrian national TV the next day, said Chris Schleifer, the sports editor of Osterreich, a large Austrian newspaper.
He once earned the country’s top athlete honors with a skier. The mere question about his availability for the national team overshadows the rest of the roster.
Austria has two other NHL players – the New York Islanders’ Michael Grabner and Carolina’s Andreas Nodl – but Vanek is by far the most popular.
Vanek could leave for Austria immediately and pick his team. His agent has been exploring options. It’s a complicated decision, however.
“I have a wife and three kids,” Vanek said. “It’s hard to pack them up, and if they stay, you know? So I don’t know.”
Vanek’s unsure when he’ll decide. Austria would be the only place he’d play.
“If I lived by myself, just the wife and I, I would’ve been there two weeks ago,” he said.
Just the prospect of Vanek joining the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga (EBEL) has fans drooling, according to Schleifer.