Rookie Vanek becomes catalyst for defending champs

Adam Fink

Thomas Vanek looked off into the distance and then let a chuckle echo throughout the corridor of Mariucci Arena.

Minnesota’s rookie forward waited until the storied walls carried the noise away before answering whether he has exceeded expectations this season.

Vanek’s 21 goals have him on pace to become the team’s freshman leader in that category. In addition, the 19-year old’s 39 points lead the Gophers (14-6-7, 9-4-5 WCHA).

“It’s going well right now,” the 6-foot-2 freshman said. “I am happy. I came here to win.”

This is Vanek’s character – a soft-spoken rookie from Austria who has embraced the Gophers tradition while establishing himself as a feared offensive threat.

Heading into this weekend’s match-up with top-ranked Colorado College, Vanek is a key reason Minnesota is hanging around in the tightly packed WCHA conference.

“I will do whatever it takes for the team to win,” Vanek said.

From the time he took his official recruiting visit to Minnesota in 2001 until now, Vanek has met expectations.

And with the numerous injuries plaguing Minnesota, Vanek has carried even more of the load.

“I don’t feel the pressure,” the right-handed left wing said. “I just go out there and try and get opportunities for my teammates and myself.”

Last Saturday’s game at Alaska-Anchorage highlighted No. 26’s skills.

Vanek tallied two goals and an assist using his emerging cross-over and ice awareness. His ability to dictate the game and set the tone impressed coach Don Lucia.

“Touched by God,” Lucia said. “He’s got phenomenal hands. You just can’t teach that.”

Added Seawolves defenseman Matt Shasby: “He’s probably the best player in the offensive zone that we’ve played all year.”

In a conference full of stars, offspring of former NHL players and highly touted athletes, Vanek has avoided much of the limelight due to a fellow freshman.

North Dakota’s Zach Parise (49 points) has become the household name of WCHA rookies.

Vanek won’t stay out of the public’s eye much longer – he will likely be an NHL first-round draft pick in June.

The Prospect Advisor, a service ranking hockey prospects, lists Vanek as the 14th highest pick for the upcoming draft.

For now, Vanek just wants to work on the weaker areas of his game. He wants to add some muscle and continue to improve on his defense – which has been the knock on Vanek since his days in the USHL.

“I feel (my defense) has improved,” Vanek said. “The coaches have given me some great tips.”

Vanek will have more time with the coaches. He plans on returning next season and his goal since starting to play hockey in North America at age 14 hasn’t changed: he wants to win a championship.

Vanek watched the 2002 NCAA Championship banner drop from the Mariucci Arena rafters earlier in the season and heard the stories about the magical season.

Now he wants to experience the same thing.

“I have never won a championship,” Vanek said. “That’s why I came here. I want to win.”