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The 36-year-old Czech has overcome his share of setbacks and he’s not about to let an opportunity like pushing the Penguins past the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final, which begins Saturday in Pittsburgh (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 8 p.m. ET), slip away.
Just the fact that Vokoun has 300 career NHL wins after he wasn’t selected in the 1994 NHL entry draft until the ninth round (226th overall) is an accomplishment. Twenty-two other goalies were taken before the Montreal Canadiens called Vokoun’s name.
So he had to start at the bottom of the North American professional ranks with the 1995-96 Wheeling Thunderbirds of the ECHL. These were difficult times for Vokoun. He didn’t speak English. He didn’t have a West Virginia driver’s licence. He wanted to go home. But he stuck it out.
After Wheeling’s season concluded, Vokoun was promoted to the AHL Fredericton Canadiens and started one playoff game. He made his NHL debut the following season, but allowed four goals on 14 shots in a period of action against the Philadelphia Flyers. He swiftly was returned to Fredericton. At that point, it didn’t look like he was going to pass Jocelyn Thibault or Jose Theodore on the Canadiens depth chart.
So he was left unprotected in the 1998 expansion draft. The Nashville Predators snapped him up. He started to rapidly develop under Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn who, earlier in his career, worked with Dominik Hasek in Buffalo.
Korn, however, was concerned about his new protégé. He thought Vokoun may have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear or worry. This is not exactly the kind of mental state ideal for an NHL goalie.
Vokoun’s father had OCD. Sure enough, the younger Vokoun was tested and diagnosed with OCD. He was prescribed medication to combat the disorder and that immediately helped.
In 2005, with the entire hockey community watching because the NHL season was cancelled due to a lockout, Vokoun helped guide the Czech Republic to gold over Canada at the world championship.
He figured his time was now and enjoyed his best season to date when the NHL re-opened for business in 2005-06. But as the Predators approached the playoffs, again something wasn’t right with Vokoun.
He had mysterious back pain. The diagnosis of exactly what was wrong did not come easy. It turned out that he suffered from blood clots caused by a condition called thrombophlebitis of the pelvis. His recovery called for blood thinners. As a result, he was forced to miss the playoffs that spring.
In fact, prior to replacing Fleury for Game 5 of the Penguins’ opening-round series against the New York Islanders, Vokoun had not played in a Stanley Cup playoff game since 2007.
He did win a second world championship in 2010. But he also became known for one of those fluky lowlights in November 2009, when Vokoun was injured by Florida Panthers teammate Keith Ballard who, after his team surrendered a goal, swung his stick and hit Vokoun. The Panthers goalie suffered a lacerated ear and was rolled off the ice on a stretcher to be treated at a nearby hospital.
Vokoun sat on the bench with the Washington Capitals last year and watched an unheralded Braden Holtby play well enough to get the Capitals to Game 7 of the second round.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh failed to advance to the second round for the second successive post-season. Penguins general manager Ray Shero, who was an assistant GM with Nashville when Vokoun was there, needed some insurance in case Fleury’s erratic play in the playoffs continued.
Fleury hasn’t been the same since those big stops he made against Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom in the dying seconds of the Penguins’ Stanley Cup-clinching victory at Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 2009.
So Shero traded for Vokoun, who wears sweater No. 92 — the reverse of his preferred No. 29 — at the NHL draft a year ago. He performed well for Pittsburgh in the regular season. He set a franchise record with a shutout streak of 187 minutes 30 seconds in late March.
He has rescued the Penguins in the post-season with a 6-1 mark and .941 save percentage (second to Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick at .948) since he supplanted Fleury as No. 1 in Pittsburgh, a position he has no plans on giving up.
Goalies in 1994 NHL draft
Vokoun was the 23rd goalie taken in the 1994 draft. Check out the quality netminders selected before Vokoun in the ninth round:
Follow Tim Wharnsby on Twitter @WharnsbyCBC
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