Here are a couple other Josef Vasicek links in addition to others’ links that I retweeted on Twitter today:
Josef Vasicek was always one of my favorite Hurricanes players which makes September 7 a sentimental day. In Josef Vasicek’s honor and long before his passing 4 years ago, I started using his #63 as part of my digital screen name for hockey-related accounts. I had a few older CarolinaMatt63 accounts when I went to set up my personal Twitter account (@CarolinaMatt63) on September 2, 2011. I briefly went back and forth about whether to keep adding the 63 on the end given that Vasicek had long since departed the Hurricanes before deciding to do so. Five days later, I read the tragic news about his passing. My daily post “Daily Cup of Joe” is both a nod to the site’s coffee theme, but also not at all accidentally a nod to Big Joe.
As any who has been on Twitter knows today is the 4th anniversary of the Lokomotiv Hockey Club plane crash that tragically ended the life of Josef Vasicek and all of his teammates and coaches who were aboard the plane. Josef Vasicek was five days short of his 31st birthday when he passed away.
My memory of Josef Vasicek prior to his passing always started from the huge goal that he scored in game 5 of the 2002 playoffs against New Jersey. To this day, I think it is the biggest goal in Carolina Hurricanes history. Coming off a 1st round series loss to New Jersey in the 2001 playoffs and almost certainly destined for the same in the 2002 playoffs if they lost game 5, Josef Vasicek’s goal charted a different course for that series and the team’s history. The Canes started that series in 2002 with 2 wins but had been beaten handily in games 3 and 4 and New Jersey. A Devils win in game 5 in Raleigh would have sent the Devils home up 3-2 and riding the momentum of a 3-game winning streak. Instead, Kevin Weekes made a stellar save in overtime to keep the game alive and Josef Vasicek finished it victoriously with an overtime-winner from right in front of the net to propel the Canes to a 3-2 series lead ultimately paving the way to a series win. From there, the exhilaration and stories just grew as the Hurricanes pushed all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Canes did not win the Stanley Cup that season, but they did put hockey on the map in Raleigh and give Canes fans their first taste of fun NH playoff hockey.
Josef Vasicek’s story of just making the Hurricanes is also a good one. He was a 4th-round draft pick in 1998. After being drafted, the 18-year old Vasicek packed up and moved to a place that did not speak his language, Czech, to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL. After 2 years of Canadian junior hockey, Vasicek was an unheralded 20-year old prospect expected to make the jump to the AHL. In today’s terms, he was the 2015 equivalent of Lucas Wallmark or Erik Karlsson who were both mid-round European draftees who were not yet expected to push for an NHL spot. But Vasicek had a strong rookie tournament in Traverse City, entered the NHL training camp with momentum and capitalized on the fact that the Canes had an opening at center. He won that open roster spot in training camp and never looked back. Vasicek started the 2000-01 season as the Canes 3rd-line center and held that role for some time and through a couple successful seasons.
But for me his untimely passing has added a different perspective for Josef Vasicek. Across every interview, the thing that stood out about Josef Vasicek was how sincerely happy he was to be where he was playing professional hockey and also how humble he was about it. As a player who at 6-4 and 220 pounds could best be compared physically to Jordan Staal on today’s Canes roster, he truly was a gentle giant. His smile was infectious, seen often and that of a person having the most sincere appreciation for where they were in life. In life I come across people who are much older than even my 40-something year old self who do not yet seem to understand where they are supposed to be in life or how to get there. Sadly, I am not sure that some people ever figure it out. Though September 7 will always sadden me a little bit thinking of the Lokomotiv tragedy and Vasicek’s untimely passing, a part of me also thinks that just maybe it actually was his time. Just maybe Josef Vasicek had reached his place in life way ahead of schedule and lived his purpose on Earth by age 31, and it was time for him to start whatever comes after that.
Rest in peace Big Joe!