Radim Vrbata happy with Canucks, no longer in a hockey desert

 

With his son now taking an interest in the game, former Coyote Vrbata loves new city

 
 
 
 
Radim Vrbata, shown stretching before a game against Winnipeg last month, spent the previous five seasons living in Phoenix and playing for the Coyotes.
 

Radim Vrbata, shown stretching before a game against Winnipeg last month, spent the previous five seasons living in Phoenix and playing for the Coyotes.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

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On a professional level, Radim Vrbata has plenty of reasons to be pleased about his first National Hockey League season as a Vancouver Canuck.

“If you would tell me before the season that first off, we make the playoffs, I would be happy about that,” he says. “And that I would score 30 goals and over 60 points, I would be happy with that.”

But on a much more personal note, Vrbata is also happy about something else. Vancouver and its Canucks have helped turn Vrbata’s six-year-old son, Krystof, into a hockey fan.

“That may be the one thing that is most interesting to me and my wife,” a smiling Vrbata says. “When we were in Phoenix our son didn’t care about hockey all that much and now he is so much into it. I don’t know if it is because there is hockey on TV all the time here, but he is taking skating lessons now,

“I take him here (Rogers Arena) to skate, he is watching and wants to know who scored, who we play next. He is really into it and that is something.”

When Krystof asked his dad this season who scored for the Canucks, Radim often had to say something like, “Well, I did, son.”

Vrbata has scored a team-high 31 times as the Canucks prepare to play their final game of the regular season tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.

There is a good chance that Vrbata will be named the Canucks’ most valuable player when the team awards are handed out before the game

The 33-year-old Czech winger, signed last summer by new general manager Jim Benning to a two-year, $10-million deal, has fit like a glove with the Canucks.

He formed instant chemistry with Daniel and Henrik Sedin and helped kickstart a resurgent season for the twins. Recently, he has formed an effective partnership with Nick Bonino and Chris Higgins. He leads the team with 12 power-play goals.

Now Vrbata hopes to help the Canucks find success in the Stanley Cup tournament that for Vancouver figures to start Wednesday or Thursday.

Vrbata has 870 regular-season games on his NHL resume, but has played only 36 in the playoffs.

Nine of those came as a rookie in the 2001-02 season when the Colorado Avalanche made a run to the Western Conference Final.

“We lost in the conference final against Detroit in Game 7, so from that experience I thought every year would be like that,” he says. “But apparently not.”

Vrbata would have to wait eight seasons before tasting the playoffs again. The Phoenix Coyotes made the post-season three straight seasons, including a run to the conference final in 2012.

“You have to appreciate making the playoffs and having a chance to play for the Stanley Cup,” Vrbata says.

“You see how tough it is. It’s not easy to make it, so it’s good that we made it. Now we see what happens.”

Vrbata had spent the previous five seasons with the Coyotes and he and his family loved living in Arizona. But he decided to test the free-agent waters and found there was considerable interest in his services.

He could have got more money and longer terms elsewhere, but he chose to play in Vancouver. The opportunity to play with the Sedins was a significant lure, but Vrbata also felt like his family — wife Petra and their two sons, Krystof and one-year-old Oliver — would enjoy the city.

Still, there were nervous moments. Back in 2008, Vrbata had signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning and things had gone badly. He ended up returning to the Czech Republic and playing most of the season there.

“I knew the city because I had played here,” he says of Vancouver. “But I was wondering how they were going to find it. The older son, he grew up in Phoenix, and that’s pretty much all he knows, and when the season ended in Phoenix we would go home (to the Czech Republic) and it was summer there. So all he knew was summer.

“But he likes it. They have been to Whistler a couple of times to see the snow. I always said Phoenix is a great place to live, but it’s kind of like living in a bubble. Everything is almost too nice. Especially for him, it’s nice to see different things.

“Every guy that is coming to a new team, he doesn’t know how it is going to go. You hope it is going to go well. But you don’t know if you are going to fit in the system, if you are going to fit with the people. But here since Day 1 it felt like the right fit, on the ice playing with Danny and Hank early in the season, in the room with the guys and coaches and trainers. It seems like a smart choice that I made in the summer.”

Quiet and soft-spoken off the ice, Vrbata has fit in well in what is a tight Canucks dressing room. His teammates rib him occasionally about all the time he spends making sure his sticks and skates are just so.

Fellow winger Alex Burrows has known him the longest. The two were teammates with Shawinigan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2000-01. Vrbata came to Canada as a 17-year-old to enhance his chances of being drafted.

“He was a pure sniper back then, too,” Burrows says. “He worked on his game, he worked on his craft back then and he hasn’t changed. He loves to score goals, loves to make plays offensively, he sees the ice really well … I knew from Day 1 once we signed him that he was going to be a really good player for us.”

“He is just a sniper around the net,” adds Higgins, his current linemate. “We are kind of the mindset that if we give him three opportunities a game from a good scoring area, he is definitely going to put one in.

“And I think he is an underrated passer, an underrated playmaker, he understands where guys on the ice are, so he’s a smart player.”

Vrbata knew that in coming to play in Canada he would lose some of the anonymity he had enjoyed in a less-than-hockey-mad market in Phoenix.

He got a quick lesson in that before training camp started last summer.

“Everyone is rooting for you and everyone knows who you are,” he says, “Early on, when we got here and I just went to get my driver’s licence and people knew who I was and we hadn’t even started training camp yet. That was something I was not used to in Phoenix and that was not something that I had been looking for. I would rather go unnoticed, but that comes with it, I guess.”

If Vrbata has learned anything in his 13-plus-year NHL career, it’s that anything can happen in the playoffs.

“I just remember that (2011-12) season (in Phoenix) we were picked to finish last and not even come close, and then we won the division and once we were in the playoffs anything can happen. If you are one of those 16 teams you have a chance. It doesn’t matter if you finish first in the conference or eighth. You have a chance … L.A. is a perfect example, where twice they just sneaked in and won it.”

And Vrbata thinks the resiliency the Canucks have shown this season could help them make a playoff run that not many would have thought possible when this season began.

“Every time we needed to answer, you know, we did,” Vrbata says. “And it was against tough teams like San Jose or even last week in St. Louis and Nashville. Just the kind of character that we have that when we needed to get a win, we somehow found a way.”

bziemer@vancouversun.com

Twitter.com/bradziemer

 
 
 
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Radim Vrbata, shown stretching before a game against Winnipeg last month, spent the previous five seasons living in Phoenix and playing for the Coyotes.
 

Radim Vrbata, shown stretching before a game against Winnipeg last month, spent the previous five seasons living in Phoenix and playing for the Coyotes.

Photograph by: Jeff Vinnick, NHLI via Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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