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Sabres forward Thomas Vanek becomes NHL's first Austrian all-star

BUFFALO, N.Y. - Sabres forward Thomas Vanek never considered himself a trailblazer when he left Austria as a teenager to pursue a dream to play professional hockey.

Some 10 years later, Vanek just might be leading the way for those back in his native land.

Already the NHL's first Austrian-born first-round draft pick, Vanek added another milestone Thursday in becoming the first Austrian selected to the league's all-star game.

"I think it's more important for Austrian hockey," Vanek said, down-playing what being selected meant to him. "The kids see that it's possible to make it to the NHL and make it to an all-star game. I think that's a bigger impact."

Vanek was the lone Sabres player selected to the Eastern Conference team for the game to be played at Montreal on Jan. 25. With 27 goals in 40 games, he began the day tied for the league lead with Philadelphia's Jeff Carter and Washington's Alex Ovechkin.

Vanek has been the face of Austrian hockey since before Buffalo selected him with the No. 5 pick in 2003. That spring, he played a key role as a freshman in leading Minnesota to win an NCAA championship.

What's important to Vanek is that he sees more Austrians getting opportunities to play in the NHL. There's Thomas Pock with the New York Islanders, rookie Andreas Nodl with Philadelphia and Michael Grabner, who's in the minors after being drafted 14th overall by Vancouver in 2006.

"Each time an Austrian gets drafted and gets a game in the NHL, it makes me happy," Vanek said.

He's got plenty to be happy about.

This year has been a bounce-back season for Vanek, who got off to a slow and inconsistent start last year and finished with 36 goals and 64 points. The production was down from his previous season and considered disappointing for a player who had just signed a seven-year, US$50 million contract.

Vanek doesn't consider his hot start to this season coupled with an all-star selection as validation.

"No, no, no, not at all," said Vanek. "For me to get that feeling, I think we have to go to the playoffs and go deep in the playoffs."

Coach Lindy Ruff said Vanek's selection was well-deserved for a player who's improved his overall game, particularly on defence.

"He's reaping the benefits right now," Ruff said. "He's improved, and he's going to continue to improve."

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