Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Looking Back: David Volek

Ask Islanders fans what their favorite moment as a fan of the team is and you will get a wide variety of responses. The history of the team is rich enough that there are wealth of legitimate candidates from which to choose as one's top moment. In my experience, the determining factor in this choice is age.

First, you have the old timers who have followed the team since its inception. They are the ones with the toughest job simply because they have seen so much. If these fans are fixated on the early days, as is their right, they might go for the symbolic choice of Ed Westfall's first goal in franchise history against the Atlanta Flames on October 7, 1972.

Perhaps others would prefer to mark the moment that the team arrived as a legitimate contender in the league: J.P. Parise's goal at :11 of overtime on April 11, 1975 that eliminated the Rangers and gave the Islander their first playoff series win.

I imagine, however, that most would select Bobby Ny's goal at 7:11 of overtime in Game 7 of the 1980 Stanley Cup Finals. Nystrom's goal, in addition to setting the course for the defining era in the history of franchise, is the first of these moments that I consider to be cross-generational. Fans like myself who were too young to witness the early years are fortunate to count the greatest era of the Islanders as our introduction to the team.

Getting just a little younger, you might see a fan point to the Easter Epic and Pat LaFontaine's goal at 8:47 of the fourth overtime to defeat the Washington Capitals in the 1987 Patrick Division Semifinals.

And the newest generation of Islander fans? They seem to gravitate toward Shawn Bates's penalty shot goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 4 of the 2002 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

Well, that was a brief, but fun, trip down memory lane. Ah, but something is missing you say? Yes, we have left out an era. Let's fill in that gap.

For a certain generation of Islanders fans, the greatest moment
they witnessed in the history of the franchise was produced by David Volek.

On May 14, 1993, the Islanders faced the heavily favored, two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Patrick Division Final. The Isles coughed up a late 3-1 lead and the game headed to overtime. At 5:16 of the extra session, Volek took a feed from Ray Ferraro on an odd-man rush and one-timed a slap shot past Tom Barrasso to put the Isles in the Conference Final.

For all intents and purposes, Volek's NHL career has been reduced to that one great moment. One almost never hears him spoken of in any other context. I didn't even recall that Ferraro set up Volek on the Isles' second goal that night, too. So let's at least take the time to look back at a little bit more of the story.

Volek was a 10th round draft choice of the Islanders, 208th overall, in 1984. He couldn't have been anything more than a speculative pick at the time, as were nearly all Eastern Bloc draft choices. The Islanders had no way of knowing if Volek would ever step foot in North America.

In the summer of 1988, Volek received permission to visit his parents in West Germany. On July 25, with the help of agent Rich Winter, the Czech star and his fiancee defected to Canada. By the end of the summer, he was an Islander.

For the next four seasons, Volek was a productive forward. He made the All-Rookie Team in 1988-89 on the strength of 25 goals and 34 assists. He followed up that 59-point rookie campaign with seasons of 39, 56, and 60 points while spending time on both wings.

By the magical 1992-93 season, the Islanders had grown quite deep at forward, featuring Pierre Turgeon,
Steve Thomas, Derek King, Benoit Hogue, and Ferraro. Volek found himself with fewer quality minutes and was also significantly limited by injuries for the first time. At one point, he requested a trade. It didn't come and his production diminished to 13-8-21 in 56 games.

Volek did not even play in the playoffs that year until Game 3 of the Pittsburgh series due to a sore back. Yet, there he was soaring down the wing alongside Ferraro with a chance to etch his name on a little piece of hockey history. Call it "The Shot Heard 'Round the Northeast." And a generation of Islanders fans had their all-time greatest moment.

One year later, Volek's NHL career was over. He had not yet reached his 28th birthday. A herniated disk ended his 1993-94 season early with only 5 goals and 9 assists to show for 32 games. He attempted or rehab the injury but retired in September 1994.

Volek did make a brief return to his Czech club, Sparta Praha,
during the 1995-96 following surgery. He was able to play only five games. Over the next ten years, Volek spent time as a European scout for the Sabres. He became an assistant coach with Sparta Praha before the 2005 season, but he's not currently listed as such on their official site.

As we learned this past season, the Islanders will be hosting an annual alumni weekend to honor different teams over the course of the franchise's history. I have to believe that the 1993 Conference Finalists will be fairly high on the list of groups to invite. Perhaps, then, we will see David Volek on the Coliseum ice one more time.

The drama of his greatest moment, the brevity of his promising career, and the speed of his demise only serve to make him a more intriguing figure.

Thanks once again to
hockeydb.com, islesinfo.com, and HockeyDraftCentral.com for serving as sources for this article.

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