I don’t normally like to infuse my personal experience, my personal narrative, or the word “I” into my writing. But today, it’s a little different.
Longtime goaltender and former Pred Tomas Vokoun announced his retirement this week after 15 years in professional hockey. He spent more than half of his career with the Predators from 1998 to 2007. Vokoun was a mainstay as I came into my own as a Predators fan.
Vokoun was brought to the Predators in the Expansion Draft in 1998, but didn’t see much playing time until starter Mike Dunham was traded to the New York Rangers in 2002. He quickly became a fan favorite between the pipes, and earned himself a trip to the All-Star Game in 2003-04.
I remember my first Predators game. On school break, I flew down from New York with my family. My grandparents threw me in the car, and took me downtown to the then-called Gaylord Entertainment Center. I was a little third grader, and didn’t really know what to expect from this game called hockey.
There is not much that I remember from that first game, but there are two things that stick with me to this day: 1. That goal horn was incredibly loud, and 2. “VOKOUUUUUUNNNNNNN!”
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Every time Vokoun would make a save, the fans would scream his name. The “Vokoun” chant completed my Predators game experience, and left me wanting more. I returned the next year (now it was the Sommet Center) and came back for more “VOKOUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!”
Unfortunately, Vokoun’s time in Nashville came to a rather ungraceful end. He battled injuries during his final years in blue and gold, and was traded at the 2007 NHL Draft for a handful of picks. I went back to a Predators game in the following years (after a “minor” ownership crisis), and most things about the game experience felt the same. But one thing was missing. I asked my grandpa, “Where’s Vokoun?”
After leaving Florida, he spent the waning years of his career in the Steel City, backing up Marc-Andre Fleury. He saw extended playing time during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs after Fleury proved too inconsistent. In his first playoff start since his days in Smashville, Vokoun shut out the New York Islanders in game five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.
Vokoun’s injury problems caught up with him, and he was eventually sidelined throughout most of the past two seasons. This week’s retirement announcement was expected, but it is still tough to see one of the first notable Predators hang up his skates for the last time.
Does Vokoun’s #29 deserve a place in the rafters of Bridgestone Arena? Probably not. The first spots up there are reserved for the guys wearing #6 and #35 right now. However, this does not undermine Vokoun’s achievements as a Predator, and throughout the rest of his career.
So, thank you, Tomas Vokoun, for roping me into Predators fandom with your acrobatic glove saves and wonderfully chant-able name. “VOKOUUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN” will ring in my ears for a long time.