With every goal he scores, Thomas Vanek is helping blaze a trail for the next generation of NHL players from his native Austria.
Facing Off returns as the Sabres' young star tells us why he has been red-hot so far this season, what his NCAA title means to him and which players he thinks are more valuable than Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
Thomas Vanek -- Quick Facts
• Vanek was selected fifth overall in 2003 NHL draft.
• He was named MVP of the 2003 Frozen Four tournament.
• He signed a seven-year, $50 million deal with Sabres in July 2007.
• In 2007, Vanek was the first hockey player to be named Austria's sportsman of the year.
• He was named the NHL's first star for the week ending Oct. 19.
Question from David Amber: Growing up in Austria, what did you know about the NHL?
Answer from Thomas Vanek: Quite a bit, actually. Once a week, there was a show called "NHL Cool Shots" and I used to watch it every week with my older brother and my dad. The show had all the big plays and it helped me follow the game. Also, as a young kid, I collected all the hockey cards, so I was a big fan. My favorite players were Mario [Lemieux] and [Jaromir] Jagr. They both played for Pittsburgh, so that made it easier. I kept tabs on all their games.
Q: You came to the United States as a teenager to play for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL. What was that experience like for you?
A: It was great. I was 14 and I moved to Canada first and then came to the USHL. I played three years there against older kids. It was a big advantage for me as a 15-year-old going up against guys who were 20; it got me prepared for when I went to college. I got pushed around a bit, but it made me mentality stronger and a better player all around.
Q: And it seemed to work out for you at the University of Minnesota, where you won an NCAA championship in 2003. What do you remember most about that experience?
A: The feeling of winning something. Hockey is a team sport, so that feeling of as a group winning it all was amazing. The moment when the buzzer went off and it was over, I'll never forget [it]. We had 25 guys and we all worked together and wanted to win so badly, so it made it really special to actually make it happen.
Q: What's it like for you when you go back to Austria? How are your treated?
A: When I first came over, no one really knew about me back home; but with the success I had at college, and then with how things have gone so far in the NHL, more people have taken notice. Now, when I go back, it surprises me how many people know who I am and how many people are into hockey. I like it. Sometimes it can get stressful because the Austrian media can be very demanding, but at the same time, I think it's good for Austrian hockey. In the last year, Vancouver and Philadelphia both drafted Austrian players, so there are more players coming over and helping the sport grow globally.
Q: You have scored a goal in the Sabres' first five games this season (Vanek now has seven goals in six games for Buffalo). Why have you been able to get off to such a fast start?
A: [Sabres coach] Lindy Ruff has given me a little more opportunity, shown more confidence in me, and it's been reflected in my ice time. Also, every year, you learn a little bit from the year before and work on what you have to do better. I needed to be more consistent and so far it has helped.
Q: Ruff has said he thinks you have the skill to become one of the best two-way players in the NHL. What does that mean to you?
A: It's good. I think I have the same mentality; I want to be one of the best players in the league. It's great to have faith shown in you by your coach; now it's up to me to do my part.
Q: Numbers-wise, what goal totals have you set for yourself this season?
A: I never do; I just always want to do better than the year before. Last season was disappointing for me. I got off to a really slow start, but at least the second half was good. So, my focus this year was to get off to a fast start.
Q: Last season, you were constantly reminded by the media about the $50 million offer sheet from Edmonton and the subsequent contract with Buffalo. Did your new contract play any role in your struggles, just knowing the expectations were so big?
A: To me? None. But, to the media, I know they really focus on the money. I always put more pressure on myself than anybody else, and maybe there were some games when I played well, but didn't have any points to show for it, and then I guess I started pressing a little harder, and then next thing you know, you haven't scored in 10 games. But I don't think the contract had anything to do with it. When I left Austria at 14 years old, my goal was never to get a big contract. I just wanted to play in the NHL and hopefully win a Stanley Cup.
Q: You were the highest-paid player in the NHL last season. Did other players ever comment on that to you?
A: No, not really; we've never really talked about it. We were all aware of it, because everyone knows what everyone's making; but, at the same time, everyone loves hockey and guys on my team at least never made a big deal out of it.
Q: Who do you think is the best player in the game today?
A: Obviously, you have [Sidney] Crosby and [Alex] Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin, but personally, I like [Pavel] Datsyuk and [Henrik] Zetterberg. Those are the two I look up to because I think they are the all-around best players, and they're winners -- they have a Stanley Cup.
A: Drury was a good leader for us. We still have some veteran guys who have been through some battles; they do most of the talking. I'm not really a rah-rah guy in the locker room, but I try to lead on the ice and work hard in practice and be a leader that way.
Q: Not many hockey "experts" picked the Sabres to do very well this season. Why do you think that is?
A: Well, we missed the playoffs last year and we didn't make many changes, so people figured we don't deserve to be considered a top team. That's fine with us. Hopefully, they'll keep us under the radar all year and we'll be fine. We have two solid goalies and with [Craig] Rivet and [Teppo] Numminen on the blue line, two big, veteran guys, we feel pretty comfortable. Also, they are both right-handers; last year, all of our defensemen were left-handed, which sometimes hurt us on the breakout.
Q: Where do you live in the offseason?
A: In Minneapolis. I love it there. I lived there for three years; the people are honest, they're nice. It's a great sports city, it's safe, and with the lakes around, it's beautiful. That's my home now; my wife is from there and it's a perfect fit for me.
Q: What's your favorite city to play in?
A: Montreal. It's a fun town and a division rival. Such a good building; it gets so loud, and when you score as the visiting team, the building gets so quiet. Then, a couple of minutes later, the fans are screaming at you again. The atmosphere gets you pumped up and it makes it great for the players.
ESPN reporter David Amber is a contributor to ESPN.com.