As Minnesota Freshman left wing Thomas Vanek darted into the New Hampshire zone midway through the third period of the Frozen Four final last Saturday night, some of the pleas from the fans at HSBC Arena in Buffalo had a European flavor. "Voran! [German for go on]" Zdenek Vanek shouted as his 19-year-old son blew past Wildcats defenseman Mick Mounsey. "Dob?e! [Czech for good]" he yelled as Thomas deked junior goaltender Mike Ayers out of position. Then, after Thomas slid the puck past Ayers, putting the Golden Gophers up 2-1 in what would turn out to be a 5-1 victory, Zdenek screamed, "Goal!" one of two-dozen English words he knows.
After the match, in which Minnesota became the first NCAA Division I hockey team in 31 years to win back-to-back championships, Thomas had some fun with his 45-year-old dad. "That shouldn't even count," Thomas said of including goal in his father's English vocabulary. "You can say 'goal' in any language. Everybody knows 'goal' "
By now everybody in the college game also knows the 6'2", 207-pound sharp-shooting Vanek, who is the first European to play for Minnesota in the 81-year history of the school's hockey team. From 1987 through 2000 not one Gopher even came from outside the state, let alone North America. "We needed to make exceptions to be competitive," says Don Lucia, the Gophers' coach. "We lost so many players [to graduation and the NHL draft] after last year."
In the Frozen Four, Minnesota dressed 13 underclassmen and only one senior, defenseman Matt DeMarchi. Of the team's eight freshmen, none had a bigger impact this season than Vanek, whose 62 points made him the first freshman to lead the Gophers in scoring in 33 years. Two years ago Bob Motzko, Lucia's assistant, coached the Sioux Falls (S.Dak.) Stampede of the U.S. Hockey League, a junior circuit, and one of his players was Vanek, who last season led the league in goals (46) and points (91). Vanek's talent was undeniable, but to thrive at the next level, Motzko says, "he had to hone his skills and adjust to the [American] lifestyle. He did both."
Vanek learned the game from his father, a left wing who played professionally in Czechoslovakia until he moved with his wife, Jarmila, and their older son, David, to Austria in 1982 escape Communism. Zdenek played eight years there before becoming a coach in Graz. "Nobody watched hockey in Austria," says Thomas, who played on mat country's national pee-wee-level team until he was 13. "It was my dream to play in the NHL, and to do that I had to go to North America."
Thanks to one of his father's former Czech teammates, Vanek hooked up with a bantam team in Red Deer, Alberta, at age 14. Two years later, he moved to Sioux Falls to play Junior A. By 2002 Vanek wanted to experience college life, so he decided not to opt into the NHL draft that year. Recruited by Motzko, Vanek warmed to Minnesota after seeing its passion for hockey on his first visit to the Minneapolis campus. Vanek also read up on the Golden Gophers' history, which included 18 trips to the Frozen Four and four NCAA titles. "People breathe hockey in Minnesota," says Vanek. "They are so into it."
Despite his success at lower levels Vanek still had to earn his teammates' respect. DeMarchi tested him at the team's first preseason practice, elbowing and slashing him on every shift. "Matt hit him often and hit him cheap," says Motzko. "Once Thomas understood there was a point to it, he started fighting back. That told the team he wouldn't shy away during games."
He didn't, either in the regular season or in the tournament. In last Thursday's semifinal against Michigan, his bad-angle wrister at 8:55 of sudden death gave Minnesota a 3-2 win. After New Hampshire ousted Cornell 3-2 in the other semi, Ayers kept the Wildcats in the final by turning back 40 shots, including eight from Vanek, but the Gophers were too quick. Afterward, Vanek was asked whether he will stay in school and try to lead Minnesota to the first NCAA three-peat since Michigan did it from 1951 through '53. Or will he sign with the NHL team that drafts him in June and become the second Austrian-born player in league history? ( St. Louis Blues goaltender Reinhard Divis was the first.) "Hey, first I have to take my finals in a few weeks," said Vanek, who has yet to declare a major.
Just then Zdenek pulled his son away so they could pose for a photo together, holding his arms wide apart to show onlookers how much his boy had grown since the last time he'd seen him, at Christmas. The father's pride needed no translation.