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BEST COLLEGE ATHLETE Minneapolis 2004 - Thomas Vanek

Readers' Choice: Lindsey Whalen

Here in the land of Herb Brooks, the usual love of the homegrown underdog runs especially strong, with affable scrappers like Dave Spehar, Kevin Lynch, and "Benchwarmer Bob" Lurtsema among the most fondly remembered local athletes. But this year, despite heartstring tugs for valiant Gophers guard Lindsey Whalen and gutty St. John's wideout Blake Elliott, it's time to give a nod to sublime, effortless, foreign-born brilliance. Thomas Vanek, the University of Minnesota men's hockey team's Austrian sensation, has spent two years making WCHA defenders look foolish. Very foolish. Very often. In fact, Vanek's talent has become such a matter of course that his most mind-blowing moves, the kind that make pro scouts salivate over their five-dollar nachos, seem almost ho-hum to the Gopher faithful. Almost. Until, in a crucial late-season game, Vanek (who, as usual, appears to be going about half-speed) splits the two defenders that give him constant, undivided attention, dangles the puck for an impossibly long moment on his backhand, then switches calmly to his forehand to flip a shot past a splayed goaltender--in the process passing the 100-point mark as a sophomore, and making fans thank their lucky stars that the old Minnesotans-only recruiting policy is just another piece of nostalgia.

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