TORONTO, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Austria is known more as the birthplace of notable classical music composers than ice hockey players, but Thomas Vanek hopes to change that tune at next year’s Sochi Olympics.
The Vienna-born forward, who has led the NHL scoring race for much of the season, is eager to parlay his performance onto the international stage when Austria’s men’s hockey team returns to the Olympics for the first time since 2002.
“It’s going to be great,” the soft-spoken sniper told Reuters before his Buffalo Sabres fell 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a National Hockey League (NHL) game on Thursday.
“As a kid you obviously have goals and dreams and one of them is to play in the Olympics and represent your country and hopefully I can stay healthy and perform and be a part of that.”
Vanek, one of three Austrian-born players currently in the NHL, is easily the most decorated ice hockey player in the small country’s history and will be counted on to lead his homeland in Russia next year.
Austria qualified for the Olympics two weeks ago and Vanek is keen to help his country build on the 12th place finish at the Salt Lake City Games, when he was 18 years old and playing junior hockey in the United States Hockey League.
Austria secured its spot in the Sochi Olympics by avoiding a regulation loss to Germany after already posting wins over Italy and Netherlands in a qualifying tournament.
“I followed the games online and it was nerve-wracking to watch and not being able to help. But the guys that played in the tournament competed hard and deserved it,” said Vanek, who played hockey in Austria during the recent NHL lockout.
“For the country of Austria it’s big. Hockey is growing, I realized that when I was back there playing for five weeks and this is just going to help.”
But first, the NHL needs a new deal with the International Olympic Committee, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL Players’ Association that would allow its players to compete in Sochi next February.
In seven NHL seasons since the Sabres selected Vanek with the fifth overall draft pick in 2003, he has never scored fewer than 25 goals.
The 29-year-old forward, however, is making headlines this year with a stellar campaign that has seen him in control of the NHL scoring race for nearly the entire season, making him the envy of many young Austrian hockey players.
To grow the game further in his home country, however, Vanek feels greater efforts must be made to help promote hockey among up and coming players in Austria’s professional leagues.
“More and more kids are starting to play and seeing that there is a chance of moving on so the game has grown, but there are still some changes that need to be made,” said Vanek.
“If you look at the pro leagues in Austria there are 10 or 11 imports (per team) and that doesn’t give Austrian kids a chance to play. So if they can limit that number to six or seven it still makes it competitive and lets their own product play.”
Vanek makes a living by parking himself in front of opposing team’s goalies and tipping shots into nets and that approach is paying off like never before for the 29-year-old forward.
Through Thursday’s NHL games, Vanek has 25 points in 17 NHL contests, tied with Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby for the league lead even though he failed to register a point in five of Buffalo’s last six games.
While Vanek is focused on getting his NHL team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, he is also eager to let the world know Austria is about more than Mozart and Schubert.
But with Austria in a group featuring 2010 Olympic gold medal winner Canada, bronze medal winner Finland and Norway, Vanek is realistic about his country’s chances of advancing to the medal rounds.
“For us it’s just to keep it tight every game and compete,” Vanek. “The expectations are zero.” (Editing by Steve Keating)