MINNEAPOLIS — When there’s a big-bodied European kid with offensive gifts skating for the Minnesota Gophers, perhaps the comparisons are inevitable. And while Sampo Ranta has come nowhere near the 31 goals that Thomas Vanek scored as a freshman for the University of Minnesota in 2003, some see similarities between the Finnish star skating for the Gophers today and the Austrian wunderkind who dominated college hockey nearly two decades ago.
On Saturday night, Feb. 8, Vanek returned to 3M Arena at Mariucci to sign autographs and see his old school in person. After 14 seasons of pro hockey with eight different teams and career earnings of nearly $70 million, Vanek is a full-time dad and youth hockey coach in Stillwater now.
“You miss the competition. The biggest thing I miss, and I’m sure it’s the same for every guy that gets out of the game, is that ever since you were little there was a structure,” Vanek said. “You’ve got to be at this meeting at this time, practice at this time, flight at this time, and now, being out of it, there’s no structure, so it took me a little time to find something. But then at night I’m at the rink more than now than I’ve ever been, with my three boys, coaching them. I wouldn’t change it, as much as I miss it.”
Asked about the comparisons between his game and Ranta’s, Vanek admitted that the sophomore forward does at least one thing better already.
“Actually I think he’s a way better skater than I ever was,” Vanek said. “I was never a great skater. I could think the game on a high level and know where to go to score my goals. For him, he’s a big body that can skate and that’s the biggest difference that I didn’t have.”
Vanek was called an offensive genius by many, for his ability to find the areas on the ice where the puck would be, and where — with seemingly minimal effort — he would snap the puck past the goalie. Offering one piece of advice for Ranta, Vanek said that playing closer to the crease would improve the Finn’s game.
“I still would like him to crash that net more and use his size, but he’s effective pulling up and using his teammates,” Vanek said. “So I do see (similarities) a little bit, but I still want to see him in front of the net where I spent my time.”
That “get to the net” message is one that Ranta has been hearing from his coaches as well. Gophers head coach Bob Motzko, who coached Vanek in junior hockey and as an assistant with the Gophers, said that numbers-wise it is hard to compare anyone to Vanek, who had 91 points in his final USHL season, and scored 57 goals in just two seasons with the Gophers, being named the NCAA Frozen Four MVP as a freshman. In Ranta, he sees a player who is learning how effective he can be at the top of the crease.
“In practice, when Sampo is out on the perimeter, I can shut him down, and I’m 59,” Motzko said. “When he gets in closer to the net, and plays the way we know he can, nobody can shut him down.”
Bunched up in the Big Ten
After last Friday’s win over Michigan State, the public address announcer at 3M Arena at Mariucci noted that the Gophers had moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten. Motzko said he cringed when he heard that.
According to the statistics site playoffstatus.com, the Gophers had a 34 percent chance of winning the conference at that moment. One night later, after a loss to the Spartans on Saturday, the Gophers were tied for second with just an 18 percent chance to win the league title. It’s the nature of the things in the Big Ten, where five points separate the top five teams in the conference standings.
“Every night there’s going to be someone else in first place, (which is) why I cringed,” Motzko said. “There’s going to be someone else in second place, there’s going to be someone else in third place. When you have that many teams tied up in a bundle, just try and predict it. You can’t do it.”