BUFFALO – In the bedroom of his childhood home in Hohenems, Austria, NHL Draft prospect David Reinbacher still has a jersey of former Sabres star Thomas Vanek he proudly wore growing up.
Vanek, who scored 373 goals over 14 NHL seasons, has long been the face of Austrian hockey. But his popularity transcends the sport. He’s an icon in the country.
“I would say (he’s) like Arnold Schwarzenegger there,” Reinbacher said, comparing the high-scoring winger to the movie star. “Yeah, in hockey, for sure, he’s one of the biggest names there. He showed Austria that it’s possible to like get something out of it.”
Vanek’s influence on a generation of Austrians can be measured by the number of high-end prospects the country has started producing.
When the Sabres selected Vanek fifth overall in 2003, he was the highest drafted Austrian ever and just 10th to have ever been taken. Since 2020, teams have drafted six Austrians. Last year, the Detroit Red Wings grabbed forward Marco Kasper sixth. In 2020, the Minnesota Wild selected forward Marco Rossi ninth.
Reinbacher, the top-rated European defenseman by NHL Central Scouting, will likely be drafted early June 28 in Nashville. He could be the first blue-liner taken and gone by the time the Sabres pick 13th.
“It would be a big honor to show the kids in Austria that it’s possible to get here and to show Austria we can also play hockey and create something out of a small town,” Reinbacher, 18, said of becoming one of the new faces of Austrian hockey.
Reinbacher, the fifth-rated European skater, spent the 2022-23 season playing professionally, compiling three goals and 22 points in 46 games for EHC Kloten in the Swiss National League.
The 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-shot defender is a “well-built athlete, physically strong defenseman who plays with authority and confidence both with and without the puck,” according to a report from Central Scouting.
“(He) looks to get involved on every shift and knows how to use his size and strength to (his) competitive advantage,” the report states. “Good skater for his size, strong on his skates with good balance and mobility. Effective making a solid first pass out of the zone and can also skate the puck out from checking pressure. Reliable and trusted by his coach to play all situations and knows to keep his game with the puck simplified in order to get the job done.”
Competing against men in Switzerland was an eye-opener for Reinbacher, who represented Austria at the World Championship this spring.
“They’re more experienced than you,” he said Saturday following fitness testing at the NHL Scouting Combine in LECOM Harborcenter. “They know how to play the game up there. Everyone knows his role, everyone knows what to do. So I guess if you step in as a young kid, you got to respect your role, you got to be really focused (on) what you have to do.”
Former Sabres and Rochester Americans center Arttu Ruotsalainen, Reinbacher’s teammate with Kloten, made sure the youngster focused on his off-ice training.
“I’ve never seen a guy like him working so hard,” Reinbacher said. “We learned a lot. He was in the gym and pushing me through the gym. He didn’t let me out, I would say, if I didn’t do this right, so he helped me a lot there. I’m pretty thankful.”
In Switzerland, Reinbacher balanced hockey with business school. Away from the rink, he worked toward his degree from the United School of Sports by recruiting business analysts large companies needed for projects.
“It’s really important for my family and me to have something besides hockey,” Reinbacher said. “You never know where you’re ending or where it’s going.”