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Islanders happy Thomas Vanek is on board

The Vancouver Canucks' Zack Kassian, left, and Thomas

The Vancouver Canucks' Zack Kassian, left, and Thomas Vanek fight for the puck in the first period of a game at First Niagara Center. Photo Credit: Getty, 2012

Thomas Vanek was a Sabres mainstay for eight-plus seasons before Sunday night's blockbuster deal that brought him to the Islanders, his first trade and first new team in the NHL.

But Vanek is a well-traveled man and a pioneer: the best hockey player ever to come out of Austria, a place he left in his early teens to build a career in North America.

"He was one of the first guys to come here and have a lot of success," said Michael Grabner, the second-most-accomplished Austrian in the NHL and now Vanek's teammate and Long Island host. "Obviously, I looked up to him a lot."

Ever since he left Vienna at age 14 -- his Czech-born father, Zdenek, played professional hockey in Austria -- Vanek has been a goal-scorer. He played for Sioux Falls of the U.S. Hockey League when he first came over; his first coach was Bob Motzko, now the head coach at St. Cloud State. Motzko took an assistant job at the University of Minnesota in 2001, the year Vanek scored 45 goals for Sioux Falls.

The following year, Vanek was the first European-born Golden Gopher ever. He scored 31 goals as a freshman, setting a school mark, and led Minnesota to an NCAA championship. The 2003 Frozen Four was held in Buffalo, a harbinger of things to come.

"I've gotten to know him over the years," said Kyle Okposo, another former Minnesota player and first-round pick, though the two did not overlap there. "He's a great player, a great person. We've skated some during the summer. He's just a real solid guy."

The Sabres picked Vanek fifth overall in the 2003 draft, a stocked year for talent. Vanek spent one more year at Minnesota, then a season with Buffalo's AHL team in Rochester during the 2004-05 lockout. Vanek scored 42 goals with the Amerks while playing alongside future Sabres teammates Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Ryan Miller.

He made his NHL debut in the 2005-06 season, scoring 25 goals. A year later, he scored 43 as the Sabres went to the Eastern Conference finals, taking out the Islanders and Rangers along the way.

After that season, the Oilers swooped in and signed Vanek to a seven-year, $50-million offer sheet, a one-of-a-kind move by Edmonton that would have cost them three first-round picks. Buffalo matched, and it's that contract that expires at the end of this season.

Vanek, 29, has yet to think about that next deal, especially so soon after the Sunday night trade. He arrived, bleary-eyed, at Nassau Coliseum Monday morning, put on a new practice jersey and a helmet with a familiar number on the back -- both he and Matt Moulson, the player he was traded for, wear 26 -- and skated on a line with John Tavares and Okposo that will start Tuesday night's game against the Rangers.

"I haven't gotten that far. I didn't sleep at all last night," Vanek said. "I'm going to catch some sleep first and get to know these guys and figure the rest out later."

He left his wife, Ashley, and three boys, Blake and twins Luke and Kade, in Buffalo for the time being. He has a long season ahead, one that includes his first Olympic Games in Sochi in February.

"He'll see we have a great team here. It's a great place to live and play," Grabner said. "Everyone who came here has experienced it for themselves. They get to know the area, the fans, the team and stuff. I think he'll enjoy it after he sees what we have here."

New York Sports