Josef Vasicek’s career with the Hurricanes started when he rose from off the depth chart to claim a roster spot to start the 1999-00 season. It started with a strong performance at the annual Traverse City prospect tournament to rise above other similar age Canes’ prospects. With the Canes short at the center position, he then extended his run by looking surprisingly ready at least defensively in the regular training camp. With the Canes light on options for depth forwards, Vasicek seized an opportunity and exited training camp as the team’s third-line center.
Off the ice ‘Big Joe’ or the ‘Czech Condor’ as announcer John Forslund dubbed him just came across as a big likable kid who was humble and sincerely happy to be where he was. Always with a smile and a humble attitude, he was part of the early group that taught new hockey fans in Raleigh what a professional hockey player looked like and acted like.
On the ice, his game was that of a big powerful puck-controlling center who was sound without the puck and in his own end. His game progressed gradually. In his rookie season in 2000-01, he put up a modest 21 scoring points in 76 games but proved solid defensively which was enough to keep him in the lineup. In the first round playoff series in 2001 versus the Devils, he scored the first playoff goal in Raleigh (remember 1998-99 playoffs were in Greensboro) and also an important goal to post the Canes to an early lead in game five which they eventually won 3-2.
The 2001-02 season saw Vasicek continue his sound defensive play and also make a modest jump offensively to 14 goals and 31 points. Along the way, he found chemistry with veteran wing Martin Gelinas which then added rookie Jaroslav Svoboda to the mix for the 2001-02 season. The third line was an unlikely combination of a veteran originally slotted for a scoring line and two young mid-late round draftees who were not projected to be in the lineup so soon if ever. Paul Maurice’s tight-checking style of play combined with ample scoring from the top half of the roster and power play made Vasicek’s line exactly what Maurice wanted for a third line.
In the 2002 playoffs, the line was solid and also notched a couple of huge goals on the Canes thrilling run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Josef Vasicek scored what in my opinion is the biggest goal in Carolina Hurricanes history when he notched the overtime game-winner versus New Jersey in game five of the first round, stopping a two-game slide and providing the turnaround and momentum swing on the way to the Canes 4-2 series win. Without this goal, the Canes would have lost three straight and probably been headed to a quick series end in New Jersey. Without this goal would all of the magic from the rest of the 2002 playoff run simply have been erased? And without the fan excitement that came from it, would hockey in North Carolina even have survived until the 2005-06 season? (You can read the longer version to the lead-up to this turning point in Canes history in the Kevin Weekes’ write-up HERE.)
Josef Vasicek also had the assist on a great centering pass from the far boards that found Martin Gelinas for the overtime game-winner to close out the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference Finals and send the Canes to the Stanley Cup Finals. He finished those playoffs with a modest three goals and two assists but made them count.
Following the magical 2002 playoff run, Vasicek came within a single goal (one he actually scored but had waived off) of reaching 20 in the 2003-04 season and remained a Cane through the 2005-06. His 2005-06 was shortened due to a knee injury reducing his role that season, but he played in the playoffs and hoisted the Cup with his teammates before departing for Nashville for the next season.
After a couple more years in the NHL and a move to the KHL, his life was cut tragically short at 30 years of age when he died in the plane crash for his Lokomotiv team on September 7, 2011.
Josef Vasicek is remembered for his role as the third line center and couple heroic scoring plays in the 2002 playoffs, but also for his consistently humble, “happy to be here” demeanor that showed through the smile he seemed to wear at all times.