Tomas Vokoun was a ninth-round draft pick by the Montreal Canadiens in 1994; the same draft that welcomed Jose Theodore to the Canadiens organization. Nobody expected, at the time, that the final pick made by the Habs that year would go on to have the longest NHL career out of the Habs’ entire draft class of 13 players.
Vokoun came over from the Czech Republic to Montreal the following season, and despite a decent showing in training camp at the start of the 1995-96 season he was cut from the team. The goaltending situation in Montreal was pretty solid with Patrick Roy firmly and unmistakably entrenched in the starter position (cue ominous music), veteran Pat Jablonski as his backup, and Patrick Labrecque as the heir apparent to an NHL role, guarding the fort for the AHL’s Fredericton Canadiens.
So Vokoun, as a 19-year-old, was given a choice: go play a year in the juniors, or start in the pros in the ECHL. He chose the latter, and made his pro debut with the Wheeling Thunderbirds. Theodore, meanwhile, returned to junior hockey to play with the QMJHL’s Hull Olympiques.
A year later, through a series of bizarre circumstances, Vokoun made his NHL debut with the Canadiens.
For the 1996-97 season Labrecque was moved to the IHL’s Quebec Rafales in order to make room for Theodore and Vokoun in the AHL. In the NHL, Roy was gone after a spectacular fallout with head coach Mario Tremblay that’s been widely documented, and Jocelyn Thibault was the new starter for the team. It also became clear that the organization was building towards a succession plan in nets with Theodore.
In January 1997, unsatisfied with his performance, the team sent Jablonski home and told him to wait for a trade. Theodore was called up as the new backup. Suddenly Vokoun became third in the pecking order.
The 1997-98 season was a difficult one for the organization as the spectre of the Roy trade still hung heavily over the team. When Thibault was suffering from a severe case of the flu, Vokoun received his first NHL call-up and made his NHL debut on February 6, starting against the mighty Flyers in Philadelphia. Vokoun only lasted one period as the Flyers pounded the young Czech for four goals on 14 shots, led by the Legion of Doom line of Eric Lindros, John LeClair, and Mikhail Rendberg. La Presse reported that Vokoun was abandonned by his teammates.
“Discouraged, beaten, and humiliated, the players of Mario Tremblay left the ice without even trying to console Vokoun. The Canadiens team spirit is seemingly at its lowest point.” - La Presse, February 7, 1997
He was pulled in favour of Theodore for the second period and would never play another game for Montreal.
Vokoun toiled with the Fredericton Canadiens for the rest of the 1996-97 season and the entirety of the 1997-98 season, indisputably second to Theodore, who returned to Fredericton when the Canadiens signed free-agent veteran Andy Moog.
Vokoun’s numbers weren’t that great, and Theodore, rightfully, was next in line for the throne.
When the 1998 expansion draft rolled around, teams were given the choice of protecting one goaltender, five/six defencemen, and 10/nine forwards, or protect two goaltenders, three/four defencemen, and eight/seven forwards instead. The cost of protecting a second goaltender would therefore be exposure of two additional defencemen and two additional forwards. A steep price.
Teams also had to expose players with a certain minimum amount of experience at every position: One defencemen and two forwards with a minimum 40 games played in the NHL in 1997-98 season, or 75 NHL games over the two previous seasons. For goaltenders it came down to how many a team chose to protect. If a team selected two, then they would still need to expose one goaltender with 10 games in the NHL during the 1997-98 season, or 25 NHL games over the two previous seasons. If the team chose to protect just one goaltender, then there was no minimum exposure requirements.
Montreal’s protected list was as follows:
- Goaltender (1): Jocelyn Thibault
- Defencemen (6): Patrice Brisebois, Vladimir Malakhov, Dave Manson, Stephane Quintal, Craig Rivet, Igor Ulanov.
- Forwards (8): Shayne Corson, Vincent Damphousse, Saku Koivu, Mark Recchi, Martin Rucinsky, Brian Savage, Turner Stevenson, Scott Thornton.
The exposed players were as follows:
- Goaltenders (2): Andy Moog, Tomas Vokoun
- Defencemen (6): Brad Brown, Steve Cheredaryk, Brett Clark, Dion Darling, Peter Popovic, Zarley Zalapski.
- Forwards (9): Sebastien Bordeleau, Marc Bureau, Martin Gendron, Jonas Hoglund, Arto Kuki, Oleg Petrov, Patrick Poulin, Peter Strom, Mick Vukota.
First- and second-year players were exempt, which is why Theodore did not require any protection. Vokoun, on the other hand, having chosen to start his pro career in the ECHL over a year in junior, was eligible for exposure.
And so, when the expansion draft results were made known by the general manager of the Nashville Predators, David Poile, the Canadiens had lost Vokoun.
But the story didn’t end there.
The Predators really wanted Peter Popovic from the Canadiens, but General Manager Rejean Houle made a deal to protect Popovic by offering Sebastien Bordeleau to the Predators for picking Vokoun. By the end of the 1998-99 season, immediately following the expansion draft, both Thibault and Popovic were gone from the Canadiens.
Vokoun wound up having a remarkable career in the NHL, playing for eight seasons with Nashville, four more with the Florida Panthers, one season with the Washington Capitals, and a final one with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was a two-time NHL All-Star, a two-time IIHF World Championship Gold medalist with the Czech Republic, and an Olympic bronze medalist.
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