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Coyotes’ Radim Vrbata finally getting the recognition he deserves

Arizona Coyotes right wing Radim Vrbata, front right, celebrates his game-winning goal against the New York Islanders during the shootout of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Glendale, Ariz. The Coyotes defeated the Islanders 2-1. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Coach Dave Tippett says Radim Vrbata likes to fly under the radar. Vrbata’s agent, Rich Evans, admits his client dislikes change. Coyotes captain, Shane Doan, jokingly labeled his longtime teammate an “old goat” as Vrbata departed the Ice Den on Thursday after the team’s morning skate.

Imagine how uncomfortable the last two weeks have felt for the Coyotes’ understated, bashful leading scorer.

Various trade rumors had him going to Boston, Montreal, Calgary, Florida, Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. His good friend, fellow countryman and longtime linemate Martin Hanzal was traded to the Minnesota Wild.

As the Coyotes took the ice for their morning skate in Buffalo an hour ahead of the NHL’s March 1 trade deadline, reporters were chronicling and interpreting Vrbata’s every move. And when he took the ice on Thursday at Gila River Arena, Arizona and its fans honored him for playing his 1,000th NHL game.

“The last two weeks have been crazy,” Vrbata said with a sheepish laugh. “Too much attention for me.”

Not enough, if you ask others.

“He’s been a steal here,” said former linemate Ray Whitney, who helped Vrbata achieve a career-high 35 goals in the 2011-12 season. “His production for money is such a high value. He’s one of those pure goal scorers with a great shot, a good release and he’s faster than people think so he gets that half step on guys to shoot the puck.

“I’m glad he’s getting the recognition. It’s hard to get to a 1,000 games. Some guys limp in there and get the game and finish with 1,010. He’s still got one, two seasons left in him; whatever he wants to play. There’s always a place for a guy who can score.”

Vrbata reached a milestone that only 309 other NHL players have achieved in Thursday’s 3-2 loss to Ottawa. The fact that it came in a Coyotes sweater, on home ice, with Tippett behind the bench made it all the more meaningful. In 494 career games with the Coyotes, he has 152 goals (tied for eighth in franchise history) and 336 points (11th).

“I’ve been around the league,” said Vrbata, 35, who was drafted by Colorado in the seventh round in 1999 and has played for six NHL teams. “If I had been with one organization for 10 years I might want to see what it’s like somewhere else, but I found that out early in my career and this is where I have always felt the most comfortable.

“Once I know where it works — where we are comfortable as a family and me as a player — then I don’t want to go somewhere else. I want to finish my career here.”

At times, that admission has made life hard on his agent, Rich Evans.

“Our job as an agent is to serve the client’s best interest and what the client wants,” Evans said, chuckling, as he took in Thursday’s game from a suite that included Vrbata’s wife Petra, Vrbata’s three kids, his brother, David, and others. “It may make it difficult to achieve the financial part of the equation, but my job is to do what my client wants me to do.

“He’s always been comfortable here.”

Depending on how the summer plays out for the Coyotes, there is a fair chance Vrbata will return. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but he has no desire to play elsewhere and the Coyotes could use some veterans to help shepherd their young, skilled players.

That’s a problem for another day, however. Thursday was about celebrating a player who has accepted under-market contracts without complaint to play for the Coyotes; a guy who has weathered misplaced criticism of his toughness with dignity; a guy that has played the same steady game whether he had Whitney and Max Domi on his left wing, or AHL-caliber players with whom he somehow still managed to score 20 goals in 2013-14.

“It was always so disappointing when he left and so exciting when he came back,” Doan said. “I was sure grateful and thankful that he came back because you learn a lot just sitting and listening to him. He sees the game a little differently and he can teach so much to so many people.”

Vrbata can still remember a time when the roles were reversed. He made his debut for Colorado in the 2001-02 season at Madison Square Garden. His eyes were as big as saucers.

“There were so many Hall-of-Famers on the ice,” Vrbata said. “[Joe] Sakic, [Rob] Blake, Patrick Roy, [Peter] Forsberg. On the other side of the ice you had [Eric] Lindros, Brian Leetch, [Theo] Fleury. Before the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff, Fleury was pulling my leg with his stick and I’m thinking, ‘what is going on here?'”

As Vrbata prepared to play the other bookend of his 1,000-game career, he gave thanks to many and seemed genuinely humbled by the milestone.

“It’s a big honor to be in the company of the 300-some players who have achieved it,” he said. “I would never have guessed that I’d get here and that’s something I am proud of.”

His only regret is that his father, Pavel, could not be there to see it. Pavel passed away in 2004.

“It’s the one thing that makes me sad about today,” he said, “that he isn’t here to enjoy it. Not just the 1,000th game, but my whole career. Without him, I would not be here today.”

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