Vokoun got his start in Wheeling - 01-28-13

Written by Seth Rorabaugh on .

The list of Czech goaltenders who catch right-handed is pretty short. In fact, it's limited to three players all-time.

Even rarer is the list of goaltenders who eventually became NHL all-stars after starting their professional careers in Wheeling, W.Va.. That list is limited to one.

Tomas Vokoun.

The Penguins' back-up goaltender got his start as a professional nearly two decades ago with the Wheeling Thunderbirds of the East Coast Hockey League.

A ninth-round pick of the Canadiens in 1994, Vokoun made the jump from the Czech Republic to the North American professional ranks in a steel town roughly an hour south from Pittsburgh. In 1995-95, Vokoun, then 19, helped direct the Thunderbirds (who eventually became known as the Nailers) into the postseason by appearing in 35 games and going 20-10-2 with a 3.67 goals against average and .881 save percentage. 

Some 13 seasons later, Vokoun is a two-time NHL All-Star (2004 and 2008) who has become known as one of the NHL's more consistent goaltenders.

Recently, he talked about his start in Wheeling.

What do you remember from playing in Wheeling?

"It’s been a long time. It was my first time in North America so it was pretty hard not speaking the language. Larry Kish, he was the general manager. He helped me a lot. He kind of took me under his wing. It was a good experience. I chose to play pro over junior. I think in the end, it benefited me to play with men instead of in a boys’ league. Everything was new so I don’t remember everything much particular stuff. It was hard though because I couldn’t drive. I didn’t have a drivers license. I didn’t speak English. It wasn’t the easiest time but it prepared me for what was coming."

Which was tougher? Transitioning to the professional game in North America or life off the ice in North America?

"The off ice stuff. For me, it was almost like I went a little bit backwards (on the ice). The league I played in (the Czech Republic) was a little bit better. It helped me to learn the North American style of play. Just to function in a difference society and learn the language and to find out what people expect of you and stuff like that. It was a process but it helped me down the road."

What led you to play for Wheeling?

"I was drafted into junior but because I was eligible (for the professional ranks), I never played any juniors. I 19 years old. They gave me a choice. It was a two-way deal. I got paid. That was one of the decisions. If was playing in juniors, I would be playing just for free. So that was one part. But the other part was I didn’t want to go junior. I felt I played two years of men’s hockey (in the Czech Republic). I felt I played long enough with men and it would be better for me to play in a professional league than junior."

Wheeling is not far from Pittsburgh. Did you pay attention to the Penguins?

"I remember went to one game here. I was obviously busy with my own season but I somewhat paid attention to the NHL. I was Montreal’s property so I was watching Montreal game. You’re a hockey player so you’re always paying attention to all leagues."

What was difficult about life in North America?

"It was tough. I had to sit every morning by the window. Wait until (teammates) 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. I never had a credit card before. Stuff like that."

(Photos: First-Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Second-Wheeling Nailers)

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