2018-19 AHL All-Star Vitek Vanecek hasn’t received much buzz to be the Capitals goaltender of the future despite strong play in the minor leagues. The reason is due to 2015 first-round pick Ilya Samsonov, the team’s top prospect, who is considered one of the best goalies not in the NHL.
Despite the rivalry, the two goaltenders — one Czech and the other Russian — formed an unlikely and close friendship with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season. The two call each other “Boss” and “Big Boss” in Russian and earlier in the season Samsonov credited Vanecek as one of the people he is closest with on the team. Vanecek recently described their relationship as “great.”
“We help each other,” Vanecek said in an interview posted by isport.cz and translated by Alexandra Petáková. “When we’re in the goal, we always want to win. We’ve never argued once.
“He even invited me to his wedding, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it,” Vanecek added. “Ilya’s English isn’t very good yet, so I tried to help him in America. We talk to each other in Czech and Russian. We curse too, I know some bad words in Russian now.”
But that doesn’t there aren’t hard moments and an intense, friendly competition going on.
“The NHL is the best league in the world and there’s always going to be competition,” Vanecek said. “Right now I’m competing with Samsonov and I’m not checking who’s up there. Right now, it’s about being better than Samsonov. When I’m up, I’ll be able to focus on playing better than the team’s starter.
“I’m still patient,” added Vanecek. “Of course, it’s hard sometimes because you’re alone there and there are moments when you flinch mentally. But I was drafted and I just keep telling myself that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I want to stay overseas for as long as I can and make it to the NHL.”
Over the offseason, Vanecek signed a three-year, $2.15 million contract, which will keep him in the Capitals organization through two potentially major events that could cause changes in the Caps net. Braden Holtby, the team’s greatest goaltender in franchise history, will be an unrestricted free agent this July and could command a salary north of $10 million per season, which could be a struggle to fit under the salary cap. The new Seattle franchise will also sport a team a year after that and play their first season in the NHL in 2021. It’s possible the Capitals could lose a goaltender, such as Pheonix Copley, in the expansion draft.
“It’s about luck, too,” Vanecek said. “If a goalie is injured, they call you up, but I don’t want to invite trouble like that… They want to prepare me for it.”
Vanecek recently spent the last month training for the new season with one of his best friends, former Hershey Bears teammate Jakub Vrana.
“We text each other and we’ve just spent three weeks training together under Aleš Pařez,” Vanecek said. “I asked him when he’s planning to return to America so we can fly together. But we don’t stay in touch that much during the season.”
Despite a close relationship with his Bears teammates and living his dream in America, Vanecek, who grew up 75 miles outside Prague, has felt homesick at times in Hershey.
“It’s hard there,” Vanecek said. “Hershey is a small town with only about three restaurants. Going alone is boring. At most, I order a meal, pick it up, and eat it at home. A chocolate factory is located there, but I’m not a big fan [of chocolate]. I don’t go much for walks either. There aren’t many places to go.”
But Vanecek took pride in what the Hershey Bears accomplished last season. After having a wretched start to the season under a new coach, the Bears found their sea legs in the winter and won 11 straight games, setting a franchise-record point streak of 17 games. The streak pushed the Bears into the playoffs where they advanced to the second round, falling to the eventual Calder Cup champions, the Charlotte Checkers.
“The whole [season] was positive, unlike the previous one when I knew it was all going to hell,” Vanecek said, referring to the 2017-18 season where the Bears missed the playoffs for only the 13th time in their 80-year history. “Nobody on the team did well. Last season I got to attend the All-Star Game. That was this sort of a flash, that I’m having fun there again.”
On traveling to AHL games – if the bus rides remind him of playing junior hockey back home:
Vitek Vanecek: “Oh, I’d be happy if it reminded me of my junior years. But here [sic – even though he was interviewed in the Czech Republic] overseas the distances are bigger for away games. But I’ll live. The worst thing about AHL is that you get on the bus on Thursday morning and get there at some point in the afternoon. There’s a practice and on Friday after the game you spend 4 hours or so going someplace else…”
On Mitch Korn:
Vitek Vanecek: “He’s the best goalie coach in the world. He’s serious on the ice, but fun off it.”
On his invitation to train with the Czech national team:
Vitek Vanecek: “I’m really glad. You’re kinda hidden in the AHL. Usually, people only find out about you once you get to the NHL. The camp’s good for my training too. I can be on the ice with the guys. (…) My club had no problem with letting me attend. I just asked and they e-mailed me their approval.”
Headline photo: @samsonov30
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