Remembering Big Joe Vasicek and the goal that put the Hurricanes on the map

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Wednesday morning, an airplane carrying a Russian professional hockey team crashed into the Volga River outside the city of Yaroslavl just after takeoff. Almost all of the Lokomotiv team—27 players—died in the crash, among them several familiar former NHL players including Czech forward Josef Vasicek, who played six seasons for the Carolina Hurricanes. Big Joe’s name is engraved on the Stanley Cup with the rest of the 2006 Canes.

Even though Vasicek was a minor player for the Canes, he was a major part of a crucial moment for the Carolina franchise, a moment that both brought Raleigh onto the national hockey radar screen and cemented the Hurricanes in the Triangle's mainstream culture.

In essence, Josef Vasicek scored the goal that put Hurricanes hockey on the map.

I had a soft spot for No. 63 from the moment I saw him. Sturdy but boyish, with a face that always seemed about to smile. That Czech air of slight facetiousness. With a frame reminiscent of my favorite all-time player, Jaromir Jagr (squint a little and the 3 on his back kind of filled in and became Jagr’s 68), Vasicek could skate a line and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Some nights, at least.

Other times he would drift on the perimeter of the action, looping in the top of the offensive zone, hoping the defense might forget about him so he could curl into the slot. But trapping defenses collapsed on the slot before a scoring chance could develop, sending him back into his high, vulture-like circling.

Regardless of which Vasicek showed up—the power forward or the floater—I always keyed on him. Some players you just like to watch skate. And the Canes didn’t have those kinds of players in abundance around the turn of the century.

Let’s face it: The Canes were not a relevant team in 2000. Hockey pundits still insisted upon calling them “the former Hartford Whalers” and making “Brass Bonanza” jokes or whistling the Andy Griffith theme. But despite the ambivalence of the rest of the league, Paul Maurice and Jim Rutherford had a decent team. One great line in Jeff O’Neill, Ronnie Francis and Sami Kapanen. Solid team defense. Some wily veterans who could still contribute like Jeff Daniels and Martin Gelinas. And a quirky, old-school goalie in Arturs Irbe. This was enough to be a playoff team in 2000. Just enough.

The Canes squeaked into the final Eastern Conference playoff seed in spring of 2001, which afforded them the honor of playing punching bag to the defending champion New Jersey Devils. Crushed in the first two games in Jersey by a total score of 7-1, the Canes brought a laugher-in-progress back to Raleigh. The powerhouse was doing exactly what everyone expected to the pretender. Carolina looked like they didn’t deserve to be on the ice with the defending champs.

Game 3 was an even greater disaster as the Devils shut out the Canes 4-0. To add injury to insult, Devils villain Scott Stevens concussed Ron Francis on a blatant high hit. Francis wouldn’t return in the series. It was a brutal, infuriating beat. Walking away from the rink that night, Caniacs endured unmitigated ridicule from Devils fans. And we had to take it.

But the humiliation sparked something in the Canes. Before a dishearteningly small home crowd in game 4, the Canes battled all game long and managed an overtime victory. Then Carolina carried momentum back north to beat the Devils at home in Game 5. Vasicek scored in that game. Suddenly the Canes were coming back to Raleigh only down 3-2 in a series that should have been a sweep.

The fans responded by packing the rink, welcoming the Canes onto the ice with an unprecedented roar. But the Devils’ skill and experience enabled them to right the ship nonetheless. New Jersey handled Carolina 5-1 to win the series.

However, something happened in the last few meaningless minutes of the game. The crowd, knowing that the final horn would be it for the season, stood as one and cheered their heads off. We cheered straight through the stoppages. We freaked out like we’d won something, and we had. The Canes had made the big, bad Devils sweat. And everybody noticed. Watch the video—or rather, listen to the video.

That miraculous ovation that fans in Raleigh gave their team in a losing effort was the moment of conception of the Carolina Hurricanes. And Vasicek scored a goal the following, magical spring that delivered the franchise into the world.

Carolina brought on better role players during the off-season and won their division in the 2001—02 season, drawing the Devils in the opening playoff round again. But it felt different. The Canes knew they could beat the Devils if they played with desperation and abandon. And the fans knew this, too. We filled the rink and screamed our heads off.

Carolina won the first two games in the series at home and we were all flying high, but New Jersey responded with a pair of convincing wins in their rink. It set up a fifth game in Raleigh, with the winner pushing the loser to the brink of elimination in the series. This would be Vasicek’s night.

Down 1-0 in the second period, we saw which Josef Vasicek showed up to play that night. While two Devils defenders forced him to his knees at the top of the zone, Vasicek managed to shove the puck to a streaking Gelinas on the wing, who beat Brodeur with a rising shot to tie the game.

Then five minutes into the third, Vasicek flung a no-look pass from the wall into the slot to give Gelinas a great chance. Martin Brodeur sticked it aside but Vasicek suddenly appeared, diving flat out to try to chip the puck over the goalie. Brodeur held the puck though.

The Canes scored late to send the game to sudden-death overtime. Isn’t that a wonderful and fitting expression: sudden-death? Five minutes in, John Madden of the Devils had a terrific chance on the doorstep and was outright robbed by Canes backup goaltender Kevin Weekes, stabbing his glove across space to snatch a certain goal. In the history of every team there is a save known as “The Save,” and this is ours. Fighting the momentum of his body sliding across the net mouth, Weekes twisted himself almost onto his chest and wrenched back across his body to extend a desperate arm. I go breathless just thinking about it, still.

A few minutes later, Vasicek would end the game. Circling the net, Gelinas flicked the puck out into traffic in the slot. Jaroslav Svoboda, skating laterally under defensive pressure, backhanded the puck back into the slot, which was empty for a moment as defenders tracked Svoboda. And in swooped Big Joe. Without hesitation, Vasicek reached out and slung the puck over Brodeur’s far shoulder and in. Carolina wins the game, and leads the series, 3-2.

This wasn’t just a “We believe” moment for the Hurricanes. That moment happened the previous year. Vasicek’s goal was a “We believe… and by the way, we are doing it” moment. The Canes went to New Jersey and finished the Devils off in the next game, and ran through two more rounds of the playoffs to make the Stanley Cup finals against the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit won the cup, but Carolina’s profile and expectations had irrevocably changed.

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I’ll always remember Josef Vasicek, and all Canes fans should, for the intensity and effort he brought to Game 5 that spring, and for its transformative effect upon a franchise that only a few thousand people paid attention to. The cup-winning Canes of 2006 and the 2009 squad that ran to the conference finals (and producing another memorable series win against the Devils) were better teams than the 2002 squad, but they were better because Vasicek scored that particular goal on that particular night.

Thanks, Big Joe. You are already missed.

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