While this past trade deadline was notable for the most activity in recent memory, it was also memorable for a move that wasn’t made. Just ask forward Thomas Vanek.
Vanek’s Self-Imposed Deadline
Prior to Monday’s 3 p.m. Trade Deadline, Vanek, an unrestricted free agent, told a local Buffalo radio station that his days of playing in the NHL would likely be over if he didn’t sign a contract.
“If I don’t go anywhere today, then I’m done. I’m okay with that,” said Vanek. “I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished and whatever, and it’s been such a fun year being home and coaching my boys. I’m happy to be a dad at home. That’s been awesome, so no, I wouldn’t train and try to come back next year.”
Waiting for the Right Offer
While still working out and skating, at the start of the season, Vanek was not interested in playing in the NHL right away. His thought was he’d join a team mid-season. As the season progressed, he found himself enjoying his life so much that he didn’t want to play.
“Some things came up around Christmas and I still… I’m enjoying the coaching part with my kids so much that I couldn’t get myself to leave,” he said.
Even at 36, hockey is still Vanek’s passion. He still believes he can contribute, even in a limited role. Earlier this season, the veteran turned down one offer because it wasn’t with a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. While his on-ice career is important to him, right now, his family takes priority. It would take have to be the right opportunity to pry him away from his family life.
“If the right deal comes along, and it definitely has to be the right situation, that’s something I’ll have to seriously consider,” said Vanek. “I feel good. I’ve stayed in shape all year for something like this in case it comes up.”
Vanek the Goal Scorer
Vanek, a fifth overall pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2003, debuted with the team in 2005-06 season. He quickly established himself as a goal scorer capable of taking over a game. He then played for seven different NHL teams over six seasons. In fact, he bounced around so much, especially at the trade deadline, that he only inked his last contract on the condition that he had a no-trade clause.
Vanek scored 373 goals and added 416 assists in 1,029 NHL games spanning 14 seasons. More than two-thirds (254) of the goals were with the Sabres from 2005-13. He’s been steady and productive throughout his career for the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, Minnesota Wild, Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings.
Vanek recorded 11 hat tricks and seven trips to the postseason–four times with the Sabres and once each with the Canadiens, Wild and Blue Jackets. In 69 playoff games, he had 21 goals and 15 assists.
Vanek ranks fifth on the Sabres’ all-time scoring list, behind Gilbert Perreault (512), Rick Martin (382), Dave Andreychuk (368) and Danny Gare (267). He ranks 11th in franchise history with 498 points, and 16th with 598 games played.
Reunion in Buffalo
The nostalgia factor had some thinking Vanek or even Jason Pominville could reunite with the Sabres. It didn’t happen. Vanek played eight seasons in Buffalo and has been facing a lack of supplemental scoring from its middle six for years. It seemed like a logical fit, especially once the team shed some cap space with the departure of Evan Rodrigues and Conor Sheary.
What’s the harm in adding a proven scorer for a cap-friendly, league-minimum deal with twenty games remaining in a playoff push? Granted Vanek’s short-term deals have been in the neighborhood of $2-3 million per year, his price tag may have been slightly higher playing in Buffalo.
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Vanek loved his time in Western New York and is well aware of how rough it’s been for the blue and gold franchise and its fans over the last few years. “As bad as it’s been there, the one thing you can tell is that the fans know what’s going on. They’re engaged.” (from “Sabres Notebook: As Vanek ponders career finish, he loved Jason Pominville’s big night”, Buffalo News – 4/6/19)
Retiring to Be a Hockey Dad
Vanek’s last season, 2018-19 included 16 goals and 20 assists for 36 points in 64 games. It’s more than respectable production for his third-line role. He also battled through knee injuries and a broken finger after blocking a shot. But as the game gets younger, even for a proven scorer, the opportunities just dry up.
For now, Vanek is happy with the role of “Dad” skating with his three sons, Blake, Kade and Luka. There are activities to go to and games to coach. And he’s loving every minute of it. It often makes him reminisce about being a youngster and how much he loved having his father around to watch his games and talk about every detail in the car the game.
If Vanek decides it’s time to retire, he may return to Minnesota, where he was a college star. He helped the University of Minnesota win the 2003 Frozen Four championship that was held in Buffalo. He may hang up his skates, but he won’t walk away from the game he loves so dearly.
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“I wanted to take this year off and see what happens, but I do want to go back into the game and eventually be a [general manager],” explained Vanek. “I think that’s the one thing I’ve learned so much of being with different teams in the last six-to-seven years of my career of what really, in my eyes, works, what doesn’t work because you’ve seen it all.
“Some organizations are great. Some are okay. Some have a lot to learn. I think over the last six-to-seven years I have wrote a lot of notes of what do the guys really like, because at the end of the day, that’s what matters. You have to have 23 players that not just enjoy where they’re at, but love where they’re at and play and compete for each other. I want to stay in the game and some day be a GM, and do some of those things that I’ve learned over my career.”
Regardless of where he continues his NHL career, for now, Vanek is relishing the role of being an involved father and playing with his kids.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”