Penguins' Vokoun no overnight sensation

Tomas Vokoun knows he is not 'The Man.' But for 17 days, he has been the Penguins' go-to goalie on the game's biggest stage -- life's way of rewarding a 36-year-old man who almost didn't survive Wheeling.

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Tomas Vokoun had been in this position too many times, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs from the comfort of his living room.

This time, his Florida Panthers had lost a tiebreaker for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference. Vokoun had been a rock at goaltender all season, but, once again, he would have no say in the NHL's heart-thumping postseason.

On the night of June 12, 2009, he sat down in his Parkland, Fla., home and took in Game 7 of the Cup final between the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins, looking for their third Stanley Cup, led 2-1 late in the third period. As the clock fell under 10 seconds and the Red Wings mounted one final attack in the Pittsburgh zone, Vokoun's eyes -- along with the eyes of millions of hockey fans around the world -- were fixed on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

Vokoun saw what they did: The catlike Fleury blocking a Henrik Zetterberg shot and releasing a rebound to his right, Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom surging to possess the puck at the left faceoff circle, Lidstrom seeing an opening and firing a shot toward it, Fleury desperately hurling his body toward the puck to complete the save of the playoffs with two seconds left, Fleury hoisting his arms triumphantly into the cool Joe Louis Arena air, the Penguins mobbing their goaltender in the crease, pushing him back into the boards.

In that moment, Fleury had lived up to the expectations set upon him when he was drafted by the Penguins No. 1 overall in 2003. It would have been easy to see Fleury's life as a fairy-tale -- the 24-year-old French-Canadian prince with the flowing black hair seizing what was supposed to be his all along.

Vokoun couldn't relate. An afterthought early in his career, his rise to starting goaltender in the NHL had been a lesson in patience. A predictable cultural transition for the native of what is now the Czech Republic preceded numerous physical and mental struggles that nobody could have foreseen. Still, he had proven his worth.

Vokoun was plenty thankful, but a question hung over him each spring on nights like that one: Would he ever get his chance to perform on the game's grandest stage?

Spinning his wheels

Tomas Vokoun was 18 years old, and everything was changing. His homeland of Czechoslovakia was now called the Czech Republic. A hockey franchise halfway across the world named the Montreal Canadiens had taken him with its ninth-round pick (226th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

Vokoun was the 23rd goalie selected in the draft, and the Canadiens had taken Jose Theodore with their second-round pick, revealing a clear pecking order. Vokoun's prospects at home seemed so limited that he took the Canadiens' offer and found himself in Wheeling, W.Va., with the Thunderbirds of the East Coast Hockey League at the beginning of the 1995-96 season.

When he arrived in Appalachia, he spoke little English. He didn't have a driver's license, so he was dependent on his teammates to taxi him to and from the arena, which is the only place he cared to go.

"It was tough," Vokoun said. "I had to sit every morning by the window. Wait until they were leaving so they wouldn't leave me because I wouldn't have any way to get to the rink. Just trying to find a way of how to live here."

Vokoun was so miserable in Wheeling that he later admitted he considered going back to the Czech Republic. In his second season, he played with the Fredericton Canadiens of the American Hockey League and was eventually called up by the Montreal Canadiens. Jocelyn Thibault and Theodore were the starter and backup, respectively, and Vokoun did nothing to change that.

In one period against the Philadelphia Flyers, Vokoun allowed four goals on 14 shots and was immediately sent back to Fredericton.

"Nobody really knew much about him," said Mathieu Garon, another goalie in the Canadiens' system. "Nobody really expected much out of him."

After his third year in the Montreal organization, Vokoun received more proof of how the Canadiens viewed him. The Nashville Predators were set to begin play in 1998, and in the expansion draft they were allowed to pick one player from each of the current NHL franchises. The Canadiens elected to protect two goalies, three defensemen and seven forwards, making the rest of their players available.

The two protected goalies? Theodore and Garon.

Soon, Vokoun was off to Nashville, carrying an understandable amount of baggage along with him.

Building a good fire

Mitch Korn had worked with Dominik Hasek during his time as the Buffalo Sabres goalie coach, so there was plenty of reason to believe that he knew what he was doing.

Korn, now with the expansion Nashville Predators, liked to take each of his goalies onto the ice for some one-on-one time at the beginning of training camp. He had seen this Vokoun play in the minor leagues but didn't know much about him, other than that Vokoun had a stocky build (some would say "chunky") for a goaltender and that he played with the butterfly technique made popular by Patrick Roy in Montreal.

During Korn's first meeting with Vokoun, he tried to instruct his new pupil and was met with a pointed stare.

"I don't do it that way," Vokoun grumbled.

His mastery of the English language had improved, but Korn could see that Vokoun had some trust issues after his humbling experience with the Canadiens. After their session, Korn invited Vokoun out to lunch.

"He looked at me like I was crazy," Korn said.

Around teammates, Vokoun kept to himself. But, through persistence, Korn broke through the wall, and he noticed that there was way more going on in Vokoun's head than anybody could have known.

During an exit meeting after one of Vokoun's early seasons with the Predators, Korn sensed through some of Vokoun's responses that he might have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder that produces uneasiness, fear or worry. Vokoun was tested for OCD and diagnosed with the disorder. He'd soon start taking medication to control it.

"It doesn't allow your head to be clear," Korn said. "Let's say you need 50 megs of RAM to run the program 'I'm the best goalie on the planet 2.0,' but you've only got 52 megs of RAM in your head. You really don't have much room for error in the level of focus that's required. But if you're OCD, that takes up megs of RAM. If you're worried about something, now you've only got 48 megs of RAM to run a 50-meg program. Can you succeed? The answer is no."

Vokoun's most prescient fear? Failing, which is about the worst fear a goalie can have.

"The game is hard enough," said Mike Dunham, whom Vokoun backed up during his first four seasons in Nashville. "As a goaltender, your mind has to be free just so you an react as much as possible."

The medication changed the trajectory of Vokoun's career.

"You're never done with it," Vokoun said. "It's something you have for the rest of your life. I inherited it. My father has it, too."

Vokoun took over as starting goaltender in 2002-03 and led the Predators to the playoffs in 2004. Nashville lost to the Red Wings in six games.

The next season, in 2005-06, Vokoun was having one of his best years until he felt pain in his back. He didn't know what was wrong, and neither did doctors for a few days. He thought it might be a tumor.

"I would say I was freaking out," Vokoun said.

The results came back, and it was discovered that Vokoun had massive blood clots caused by a condition called thrombophlebitis of the pelvis. He was put on blood thinners and forced to miss the remainder of the season and the playoffs.

He had to watch as the Predators lost to the San Jose Sharks in five games.

"That was tough," Vokoun said. "We had a pretty good team, and it was probably the best I've felt in my career."

Vokoun recovered and returned to the playoffs the next year, only to lose to the Sharks in five games once again.

In the next five seasons, he would not suit up for a postseason game.

"Tomas has done such a great job of using these things to make him stronger and to fuel his fire that he has," said Chris Mason, who was Vokoun's backup in Nashville. "I've played with a lot of players and, without question, he's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. He just has this stubborn determination that he could do anything that any other goalie could do."

Korn had to say goodbye to Vokoun when the Predators traded him to Florida after the 2007 season. They'd come a long way since that first meeting.

"Boy to man," Korn said.

Developing a 'Flower'

Craig Patrick made a decision: The Pittsburgh Penguins were going to get the guy they wanted in the 2003 draft, so they traded up from the third pick to obtain the No. 1 overall pick. Would it be goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury or center Eric Staal?

"The majority of us wanted to go with Marc-Andre," said Patrick, then the Penguins general manager, "because we just felt that his personality, his drive to be successful, his skill level and his quickness was something that could turn into a really top-notch goaltender in the NHL."

The Penguins selected Fleury, making him just the third goaltender to be taken first in league history.

But it was not a seamless transition from draft night to that fateful evening in June 2009, when Fleury's heroic save brought Lord Stanley's Cup back to Pittsburgh.

In Fleury's first season in Pittsburgh, the Penguins played him in just 21 games. The rest of his time was spent with his junior team, the Cape Breton (Nova Scotia) Screaming Eagles, and the Canadian World Junior team. Patrick said the reasons were purely financial.

The Penguins had signed Fleury to a contract that stated they had to pay him a bonus if he played 25 games that first season.

"We were strapped for money back then," Patrick said. "It was a situation where we couldn't afford to honor our contract to him. But the bottom line is, how is that developing a young guy?

"I blame us. We could have developed him better than we did. But it was a matter of financing back then. We did the best we could, but it was all about dollars."

Patrick said the Penguins made similar moves with Fleury to avoid paying him bonuses the next two years, too. Fleury never complained to Patrick about being sent down to Wilkes-Barre, but, to Patrick, Fleury had every right to be frustrated.

Those decisions did not derail him. He became a cornerstone of the franchise's resurgence, right there with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and, as Fleury stepped to the stage to speak at the Penguins' Stanley Cup celebration in Downtown Pittsburgh, it seemed the young man known as "Flower" had stolen the hearts of his new city.

"FLEURY! FLEURY! FLEURY!" they chanted.

Wearing sandals, a backward cap and sunglasses to go with his No. 29 jersey, Fleury took the microphone.

"Thank you everybody," Fleury said. "It's been awesome. I know sometimes I let in some soft ones, and you guys still cheer for me, so thanks a lot."

The soft goals were easier for fans to handle when the Penguins were winning playoff series.

In the years that followed, Fleury's playoff save percentage dipped below .900. Last year, in losing to the rival Flyers in six games, Fleury had a sieve-like 4.63 goals-against average and a save percentage of .834.

This offseason, Penguins general manager Ray Shero made it a priority to find a suitable second option for a team with visions of a Stanley Cup. Shero wanted a goalie so dependable that he could hardly be viewed as a backup, and he knew just the guy.

Shero, who worked from 1998 to 2006 in the Predators organization, had watched Vokoun up close. Vokoun was now coming off a serious groin injury with the Washington Capitals, and Shero drew up a trade to bring the star-crossed veteran to Pittsburgh.

Turned out, even after a decade as a starter and two NHL All-Star selections, people were still undervaluing Vokoun. All it took was a seventh-round draft pick to get him.

A new guy in net

These days, Vokoun is taking it all in.

He's the starting goaltender in the playoffs, on a team favored to win the Stanley Cup. Before each period at Consol Energy Center, the camera is focused on him before the Penguins take the ice. Each time he makes a save at home, thousands of his new best friends acknowledge him with a hearty "VO-KOOOOON!"

Vokoun, at 36, has provided the Penguins with a lift, going 5-1 since taking over for Fleury before Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Islanders. That he's second in these playoffs in save percentage (.942 ) and third in goals-against average (1.82) shouldn't come as a surprise, given his track record.

Vokoun is fifth in career save percentage among active goalies (.9169), but he has been overlooked having only played in 11 playoff games entering this postseason. Now is Vokoun's time, and, after everything he's gone through to get here, he's not afraid of anything.

"I don't have that pressure of what people are going to say or 'Am I going to get another contract after this one?' " Vokoun said. "I think that's kind of an advantage. I can enjoy it more. Sometimes when you have things going on, it's a lot harder. For me, I wasn't supposed to be in the net, so that makes it that much easier. It's not like I'm worried about the future or playing the next 10 years. I'm basically taking every game like it could be my last. That's why it's so much fun."

Of course, there is another side to this story. Fleury, at 28, should have many good years ahead of him. But, in the present, he's had to watch from the bench as his teammates play the most important games of the season.

"He's definitely a team-first guy," said Bob Hawkins, whose family hosted Fleury as a junior player in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. "But I also know that he's super-competitive, that he's chomping at the bit. Not that he wants to see [Vokoun] fail, but he's waiting for his chance. He'll be ready, and, if anything, he'll want to prove something, to himself and his teammates."

Will Vokoun give Fleury a chance at redemption, to erase the lingering memories of the 2012 playoffs and a six-goal performance in Game 4 of the Islanders series? That remains to be seen. The Penguins could have gone back to Fleury to begin the Ottawa series but elected to stick with Vokoun.

Prior to Game 2 against the Senators, Shero was asked if it is hard to watch Fleury go through this.

"No," Shero said. "It's bigger than just one player. It's probably easier right now because Tomas has come in and played so well. That buys more time [for Fleury] to get his game in order, which I trust he will do. And that's the big thing we really haven't had in the past when Marc has had to go through some of these things."

After this season, Fleury will have two years remaining on a contract that pays him $5 million a year. Vokoun will be under contract for one more year at $2 million.

On the outside, there is a prevailing thought that, even though Vokoun has played so well in these playoffs, the Penguins will need Fleury to win the Cup. After all, he's done it once before.

"He's not playing right now," Patrick said, "but believe me, if the Penguins go on in these playoffs, he'll be playing and he'll be instrumental in what their end result will be. I'm not inside their organization, but I just know from my belief in this guy, he's the real deal. He's going to be a standout goaltender for a long time."

The beauty of this situation for Vokoun is that he doesn't have to think about what's coming next. His mind is free of clutter, and the challenges of the past are only there to offer perspective on the fleetingness of moments like these.

"You look at it like, 'I've been sitting for years watching playoff hockey on the television on my couch,' " Vokoun said, "and I have no chance. Sometimes, it's better to be there and fail than to not have the chance to be there at all."

mobilehome - homepage - penguins

J. Brady McCollough: and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. The P-G's Seth Rorabaugh contributed to this report. First Published May 26, 2013 4:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?