By Brian Coe
Tomas Vokoun has been a professional hockey player for the better part of 19 years, dating back to his ECHL debut with the Wheeling Thunderbirds (now the Nailers) in 1995. Last September, it looked like his hockey career might come to an end due to a blood clot found in his thigh.
But hockey wasn’t foremost in Vokoun’s mind as he underwent treatment for the ailment.
“I have other things in my life. Obviously my health was my primary concern,” Vokoun said earlier this week. “It wasn’t like a broken bone that was going to heal and be fine, it was a pretty serious thing. After a while I didn’t even think about hockey for some time. Now it looks health-wise everything’s ok.”
With his health issues seemingly behind him, Vokoun is now focusing on a return to playing hockey, and that return starts in Syracuse on Friday night, where the veteran of 700 NHL games will suit up for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
Assigned to the AHL club on a conditioning stint, Friday night’s contest will be the first minor league game for Vokoun since the 1999-00 season when he appeared in seven games with the Milwaukee Admirals, then of the International Hockey League.
“Overall I feel pretty good. Quite honestly I feel better than I would expect I would have felt,” Vokoun said after participating in his first full practice with the Penguins on Wednesday. “Saying that, the game’s going to be totally different.”
Many players of Vokoun’s pedigree – seasoned vets who are more used to charter planes then cramped busses – might not take a conditioning assignment with the most seriousness. But Vokoun is looking at his weekend stay in Wilkes-Barre with a determined eye.
“If I didn’t take it seriously I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I’m going to be as focused on the game as if I was playing in Pittsburgh or in the playoffs in the NHL. Playing this long and being around, I’ve played on different levels. Every game I play…I’m trying hard, that never changes.”
And that’s great news for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, as the team can clinch a playoff spot as early as Friday night. A Penguins win coupled with regulation losses by Hershey and Norfolk gives the Pens their 12th consecutive trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
With the strong play of Marc-Andre Fleury and the capable blocker, glove and stick of Jeff Zatkoff holding down the Pittsburgh goaltending duties, it’s unknown whether Vokoun will see any further action at the NHL level this season. But if serving as a third netminder during a run to the Stanley Cup Finals is an open position, it’s one Vokoun would be happy to fill.
“I’m here to help," said the 37-year old, who said he’s 90% sure this will be his final season of professional hockey. “It seems like the [Pittsburgh] coaches and management want me to be around. Whatever the role is, it is."
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