The plane sputters to a stop. It is warm out…warm for here, anyway, and for a long while these are the last quiet moments he will enjoy. He exits to the left, puts black sunglasses on to compliment a golden-gray suit. A man leans into his ear, tells him they'll take care of his luggage; tells him not to worry about a thing. He asks for a reminder about his living arrangement, but the baggage handler has already shuffled off. He presses forward in the herd of people as security clears his way. From a distance he looks refined, regal. He stands out particularly among the anonymous proletariat around him.
Hands reach through the security to address him, and the calming quiet of the plane is now replaced with grating, yelping, almost insufferable white noise. They stand around him, shuffling their feet with the momentum of the rows of people, cat calling to him in admiration. This is the only place in the world in which it is quite this way for him. But here, he is like a Beatle. A one man band. And who can blame him for feeling safe here? Who can blame him for still, after all the years, feeling warm as he returns home.
Thousands of miles and an ocean away, in a town that chose him before he ever chose it, fat men in old clothes and bad haircuts write words. They write and write and write, all of these words, these petulant whines about coolers in locker rooms and lazy back checkers and commitments to mediocrity. They sit in judgment in invisible courts barking declarations to invisible clerks and lazily protest — as if we are to pretend we haven't read this once and twice and thrice and countless times before, as if to pretend that there exists some pragmatic difference between their judgment and ours — about what is right and what is wrong.
Who would trade this, for that? But years ago he did so. Years ago he made a commitment to himself to meet a challenge about being the best. He was going to be the best he could be, and he cared about it so much that sometimes you could read the frustration and anguish on his face when he failed. Sometimes he was so hard on himself people questioned his ability to be great. To be a leader. To be even anything at all. People rode him, said he was uninspired, said he was too hard on himself and it led him to pout, to march off and sulk in some lonely corner where it was once again quiet. But then every once in a while again for him the world would slow down and he would be moving just a little bit quicker. Every once in a while he could see everything.
A car waits to take him to his hotel. His equipment should already be there, they say. What would he like to eat, they ask. He ducks down and gets in the car. Local and national media snap hot, white bulbs into his face. He'll be all over the news here, tonight, and though so much of his trip has already seemed like the covering of a scandal, he reminds himself that his presence is, in some strange way, a form of celebration. The driver kicks the car's transmission into drive, pulls just off the curb and into traffic. He takes off his sunglasses slowly, adjusts his cufflink and breathes a sigh of relief.
It is the fall, 2012. There will be no training camp, no hockey in America right now. Thomas Vanek has gone home.
"Spending five weeks at home, I got to see how big the game had grown. I went back and every rink was sold out," Vanek told the Associated Press in an article for the CBC.
It was five weeks spent in his home country of Austria, a country which treats Vanek among just a small handful of other homegrown international celebrities, like a national treasure. In the United States, where hockey is the fourth or fifth most popular sport and where Vanek is rated only in the Top 30 when national pundits are asked to rank the best players in hockey, he's more of an anonymous figure, known and loved (or hated) only by those who religiously follow Buffalo Sabres hockey. In Austria, he is something of a LeBron James type figure. The national hero, and perhaps the best athlete (unless you consider Arnold Schwarzenegger's body building career an athletic endeavor) ever to come from Austria, he is the Wayne Gretzky of that country… a place more known for its ability to inspire super-sized action heroes and funny shoes than hockey players.
When Vanek returned to the United States in January as the NHL's months-long lockout ended, he carried with him the confidence and gravitas of a player whose last month-and-a-half were spent in rarified air. On the ice, it showed. Despite his team's slow start around him, Vanek played as if on his own planet, as if playing a different game from the rest of the league. He skated and passed and took shots with a fierce, almost cartoon-like determination in the first ten games of the season.
"Best stretch by a Sabres player since Mogilny?" a friend asked me. Well, a few nearly-100-point Danny Briere seasons and a Dominik Hasek 1998-99 in which the man nearly took a rag-tag group of underachievers the distance stand in the way of that, and after all, it's only 10 games. What's more, hockey fans have bared witness to the greatness of Vanek in hot flashes at other times in his career. He is nothing if not streaky, stringing together two-or-three week stretches of brilliance followed by similarly long strings of maddening futility. Vanek's relationship both with his coach and his fan base has been a roller coaster from the very beginning. Great and awful in those infamous streaks, Vanek has worn on his sleeve the burden of a terribly hefty contract that came as a result of a ridiculous offer-sheet by the Edmonton Oilers in restricted free agency in 2007. The Sabres, having lost co-captains Danny Briere and Chris Drury mere moments earlier simply could not afford to lose Vanek, their budding star, as well. The relationship between Vanek and Sabres fans has been so weird and passive aggressive — so 7th grade, so, "I wanna go up your shirt but my hands are clamming up, so I'll just take care of this in the shower later" awkward — that at times it's seemed like it'd never be good again. And then it is. And then it isn't.
Despite all that, though, there exists something different about the attitude of Thomas Vanek in February 2013, watching him at his craft from a distance.
There's a certain "it does not matter" about him, a resolve, a determination that has maybe been boiled over by frustration in the past. With any good resolve, too, there is a certainty that comes with it. Thomas Vanek knows he's playing maybe better than he's ever played before, he seems to know that a lot of it is being wasted on a team that — at least at the moment — is not good enough to do much with it, he's mentioned many times that he knows he can't possibly sustain it, and despite all that, he seems just fine with this all playing out as it has. He seems like he knows who he is.
It's not like Thomas Vanek had not been home before. Nothing that happened was, exactly, a surprise. He's been treated like a rock star in Austria for years. Any one of average intelligence saw the lockout coming from a mile away. It was all there to be seen and understood well in advance of it actually happening. But then again, there was something a little bit different about his trip to Austria in the late months of 2012 against what had existed there before. And what was it? Well, it was that a hockey culture existed in Austria all of a sudden, somewhat by his own doing. His presence in the NHL had helped marginally grow the game in the tiny Eastern European nation from virtually non-existent to at least measurable, and in doing that there existed competition for Thomas to play and a purpose for his celebrity beyond just being another guy who is good at something that the rest of the world cares about.
Then came the news just today that Austria, for the first time in its history, would be competing in the Winter Olympics in the sport of hockey. Its fledgling little hockey program had put together a team talented enough to qualify on the outer margins of the Olympic trials, and Thomas Vanek would get to go represent his home country in 2014 in Sochi. Sure, it will likely be 21 incredibly overwhelmed guys trying desperately to pass him the puck (something that you might say Thomas Vanek's recent NHL career has prepared him for), but it isn't the winning or the competitiveness that exactly seems to matter to Vanek. It's the purpose. It's the idea that what he's done, skating around on artificial ice, carrying a stick and chasing a piece of rubber, has in some way made a difference in the lives of people from where he is from.
And though lots of athletes have the opportunity to say that things like that make a difference in their lives, I can't help but feel like, given the recent results, it really is starting to make a difference to him.
Vanek has had opportunities, perhaps, to play in the Olympics before. Questions have never really been fully answered as to the likelihood of Vanek applying for and being approved for an Olympic exemption to play for the United States given his extensive residency in the country and receiving his college education here. Chances are that had he pursued that strongly, and backed by the full force of USA Hockey which surely would have wanted him, he likely could have got it done. So there's something even a little bit more special about a guy like Vanek, talented as he is, potentially turning down the possibility to play for a competent and established hockey nation in favor of his true home country, on a team and in a time in which he would have virtually no chance of winning anything but last place.
Clad in deep royal blue and a biting gold all together different from that of his suit, Thomas Vanek glides to a stop in front of a poke checking Tukka Rask. Rask sprawls his legs out as Vanek moves the puck back and forth with incredibly soft flicks of his wrist. Forehand. Backhand. Forehand. Backhand. Rask at once strikes, like a spider attempting to entangle something in its web. But he misses the puck as Vanek pulls it again to his backhand, glides ever-so-slightly forward with his skate and lifts the puck behind the defenseless goaltender. On this night, Thomas Vanek records 5 points, including a hat trick.
On the television, Jack Edwards, the Bruins broadcaster, known more for his wild inability to credit anything except the Bruins with, like, even existing, tips his hat, refers basically to Thomas Vanek as Boston's daddy, and becomes a fan for a minute. That's how great Thomas Vanek is when he's on his game. He makes Jack Edwards verbally masturbate about something that hasn't been ordained by Jeremy Jacobs.
So maybe that purpose that Thomas Vanek seems to carry around with him these days has utility outside of Austrian hockey. Maybe, in the United States, in the middle of a pretty impressive little career he's had for himself — even if the newspaper men and radio men and bloggers have given him a hard time about a lot of it — maybe now he's beginning to work on his magnum opus. And in a league where goals continue to be at a premium, on a team that lacks secondary scoring, tertiary scoring, centers, competent management, any defense to speak of nor an owner capable of saying more than 10 consecutive words without breaking down in tears, perhaps in that environment, it's time to hitch onto the Thomas Vanek steam train and give the guy something besides hell for not scoring every single time he touches the puck.
As he heads into a year which may well be remembered, even in a short season, as the best of his career, and as he heads into a 2014 where he will be the single identifiable entity on an Olympic bound hockey team, a team thats very existence and certainly improvement can singularly be attributed to his talent, maybe now is the time for a change. Maybe now, on a team which won't fire its General Manager or Coach and can't trade anyone for anyone that seems to matter, you do the one thing you can do that seems all together wild and crazy but maybe just might work. Maybe you call Thomas Vanek up to the front of a team meeting, and you give the man the "C".
And even if you don't, at least we have the benefit of sitting around and appreciating what is happening. Players coming of age and truly peaking is a rarity in sports. Usually we know pretty early how great a person is going to be throughout their career. It doesn't happen very often for reasons that would probably take a book to describe. But when it does happen, man, it is fun.
Thomas Vanek turns and throws his arms out, pulls a loose puck from the boards and flicks it down the ice. Boston retrieves it and scampers back, but errs and pulls themselves offside. Vanek coasts back to the bench. Someone mutters good job as Lindy Ruff barks out the next line, the next call. Vanek takes his place on the bench, as the camera focuses in on him and the television announcers go over his impressive night, one more time.
In Buffalo and Austria, two boys sit in front of their television sets, watching the game with their fathers. "Who is that, daddy?" the boys ask.
"That, son." say the dads. "Is the best hockey player in the world right now. And he's ours.
And damned if that doesn't get at the little boy in me, too.
Matthew Stewart is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He is set to release the book, "Wide Right (And Other Tragedies)" in 2013. You can talk to him about this article on Twitter by tweeting @matthew1stewart