But early in his first year with the Gophers, Vanek found himself asking fellow freshmen if they could explain the movie “Teen Wolf.”
“That’s what we nicknamed him — ‘Teen Wolf,’ that movie where the guy would be normal and then get angry and suddenly turn into a [werewolf],” said Grant Potulny, captain of that 2002-03 team. “In 2003, Thomas became ‘The Guy.’ He’d be a good player, and all of a sudden somebody would talk smack to him or whack him, and it was like … ‘Teen Wolf.’ You couldn’t stop him. He would just dominate.”
Add the long hair and playoff beard, and “Teen Wolf” fit more perfectly. It has been 11 years since Vanek burst onto the scene to score 31 goals and lead those Gophers to a second consecutive national title. And it’s been 11 years since Vanek fell in love with Minnesota.
He’s no longer a teenager. He still has the long hair and scruffy beard, but he’s 30, married and has three sons.
And still scores goals. In fact, he has registered the eighth-most goals (277) and third-most power-play goals (113) in the NHL since entering the league in 2005.
“If you keep him happy off the ice and let him score, he lives a pretty simple life,” said Bob Motzko. Motzko, the former Gophers assistant who recruited Vanek after coaching him as a 15- and 16-year-old at Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. “He’s just a big-hearted, loyal family man … who loves to score goals.”
The Wild, a playoff team despite goal-scoring deficiency, signed Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million contract this past offseason. That followed years of rumors that Vanek wanted to return to the place he met his college sweetheart and now wife, Ashley, and to the place he plans to live the rest of his life.
Vanek is finally about to begin his second Minnesota career. He will be wearing the green sweater for the first time Thursday when the Wild opens the 2014-15 season against Colorado at Xcel Energy Center.
“When we won that national title in ’03, Thomas just put the team on his back — I mean, there was no doubt who our best player was at that tournament,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia. “He has been a very elite player at every level he’s been. He’ll make [the Wild] team better and give them the ingredient that every team is looking for, and that’s the ability to score goals.”
World of hockey
In 1982, at the height of communism in Czechoslovakia, Jarmila and Zdenek Vanek wanted a better life for their 4-year-old son, David. They went from border to border to try to immigrate into Austria. Finally, at their seventh or eighth border, the Vaneks were allowed in. They went, with nothing, to Vienna to start a new life. Two years later Thomas was born.
He grew up in Graz, hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Zdenek was a professional hockey player, so from the time Thomas can remember, he was in love with hockey. Because of his father’s Czech background, Thomas had posters of Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek.
“When I was 8 or 9, once a week, we got the show ‘NHL Cool Shots’ on TV,” Thomas said. “For every kid that played hockey back home, that was a must-see show. Once I saw it, that’s when my dream started. I wanted to play in the NHL.”
Headed to Canada
When Vanek was 12, he made an Austrian select team and traveled to Quebec for a peewee tournament. Teams wanted him to move to Canada.
“I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided to move to Alberta,” Vanek said. “I didn’t know much English. Only a few words. But the good thing about my mom and dad, they said, ‘Go and try it. If you don’t like it, just hop back on a plane and come home.’ ”
At 14, Vanek found the guts to move 5,000 miles away to Lacombe, Alberta, and in with a host family — Colleen and Dave Douglas and their two kids.
“If not for them, I would have gone home a long time ago,” Vanek said. “They took me to practices and family events and just took me in as their own.
“People would talk, but I had no idea what they were saying. I’d answer everything ‘maybe’ or ‘sometimes’ and leave it at that,” Vanek said, laughing. “But they taught me how to communicate by making me do things that were uncomfortable, like answering the phone.”
While playing midget hockey, Vanek got a family adviser, Steve Bartlett, who today is his friend and agent. At 15, Vanek moved to Rochester, N.Y., to play in the North American Hockey League. But the high school had trouble with Vanek’s visa, so a month later Motzko got a phone call.
“They reached out to a handful of USHL teams and, as luck would have it, we had one open import spot and my assistant coach, Tony Gasparini, had seen Thomas play the weekend before,” said Motzko, now head coach at St. Cloud State. “We said, ‘Yeah, we’ll take him.’ The phone call lasted about three minutes. It was a pretty lucky phone call.”
Vanek found a home for three years in Sioux Falls. He played two seasons for Motzko, who left in 2001 to become an assistant for the Gophers. Vanek had 46 goals in 53 games his final season in the USHL and was heavily recruited by every college team — but the Gophers had Motzko.
“The one thing about Bob, he’s a great coach but an even better person,” Vanek said. “He wanted me to be happy. He just said, ‘Come up, check out the school, but don’t come because I’m here.’ ”
Vanek narrowed his choices to Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but Minnesota “seemed the right fit. I like that Midwest mentality.”
An outsider arrives
Potulny, a North Dakota native, and Vanek, the first European to play for the Gophers, were two of three non-Minnesotans on the 2002-03 team.
“We were kind of the outsiders, and Tom being a European, that was an even bigger deal,” said Potulny, today one of Lucia’s assistants. “I never thought about it until Don mentioned that people might not be too happy [he was a non-Minnesotan]. I guess I was a little ignorant to it. I didn’t understand why. I knew what I could do and that I could help the team, so I hoped I could get people on my side.”
It didn’t take long.
“I played against him in the USHL,” said former Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard, now Vanek’s Wild teammate. “There were nights in junior where it wasn’t even close how much better he was than everybody else.”
The same thing happened in college.
“One of the first practices, I was standing along the boards and Don skates by me during one of the drills, turns his head and says, ‘I’ve never had one of those before,’ ” Motzko said, laughing. “You could tell that this kid was going to do damage.”
‘One more year’
Vanek’s coming-out party came in a Nov. 29, 2002, game against Michigan State when he scored three goals, had an assist and recorded 15 shots on net.
“That was the moment everybody in college hockey stood up and paid attention to Thomas Vanek,” Potulny said.
Vanek led the Gophers in scoring and had the winning goals against Michigan in the NCAA semifinals and New Hampshire in the NCAA championship game.
“He loved the big moments,” Motzko said. “The bigger the game, he really found a way to have an impact.”
After the title, there was a rally at Mariucci Arena. Ten thousand fans showed up, and that was around the same time Syracuse fans would chant “One More Year!” during games to try to keep Carmelo Anthony in school.
When Vanek was introduced, Gophers fans chanted, “One More Year!”
“We were chanting, too,” Potulny said, laughing.
Vanek was humbled and embarrassed by the chant “because that’s not me, but even before I committed, I knew I was staying at least two years. I didn’t feel ready.”
Big goal scorer
Vanek left after his sophomore season, and the timing turned out to be good because of the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Vanek spent that season learning the pro game at AHL Rochester, scoring 42 goals in 74 games.
He spent the next nine years in Buffalo before being traded twice last season, to the Islanders and Montreal. His best season was 2006-07, when he scored 43 goals and led the NHL in plus/minus with a plus-47 during his second year in Buffalo. He was in his ninth season with Sabres, and in the final season of a seven-year, $50 million contract, when he was traded to the Islanders last October. He turned down an extension offer, and was traded to Montreal in March.
He faced much scrutiny during a five-goal, 10-point playoff. He was accused of being everything from lazy, to out of shape and slow, to dogging it defensively.
“My experience, he worked extremely hard in the weight room and with his off-ice conditioning to be the best player he could be,” Lucia said. “Sometimes elite offensive players, they’re not going to waste their energy on the rink. How does [Ryan] Suter play 30 minutes a game? Because he’s smart and buys his energy. Thomas does that. And like any elite offensive player, you’re always going to get the rap that you don’t play any defense.
“It’s pretty well known that if you’re going to play shinny hockey with Thomas in the summer, you better work hard or he’ll get mad at you. Some people want a nice easy pickup game, but he wants to get something out of it.”
Coach Mike Yeo did his research before the Wild signed Vanek. He even met with Vanek the day before so the two could understand what to expect from each other.
“I’m sold,” Yeo said. “He’s been really positive. He’s been really open. And we have a lot of guys who are going to go out and show how it’s done. I’m just excited like you wouldn’t believe to work with him. If there’s ever a time where he isn’t giving enough as a player, that’s on me. He’s got the tools, and we have to figure out how to best use those.”
Vanek had other options July 1. He could have made more money. Most had him postmarked for Minnesota because he lives here. Heck, his in-laws are his next-door neighbors.
But Vanek swears he would not have signed in Minnesota unless he thought the team could win.
“This decision was not because I live here,” Vanek said. “It’s because I feel like this team has depth and I can add to it. I’ve always believed in myself, and I still do. Last year was a tough year moving around. But going into every year, I know I can score and make my teammates better. I still feel like my game is growing. I still feel I have a lot of good hockey left.
“Once that thought in my head goes away, then it’s time for me to step away.”