SPOLIGHT: AARON VOROS

Bruce Berlet 7BY: Bruce Berlet

Aaron Voros knows all about the unemployment rate in the United States continuing to hover around nine percent.

Voros, who spent the last eight seasons in the AHL and NHL, was part of the jobless force as he sat around New York City, training on his own but without work prospects, not far from where his former team played in Madison Square Garden and where he and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and best friend/left wing Sean Avery own a restaurant.

Voros was kicking himself a bit for passing on a few opportunities, including in Russia and Switzerland, to escape the unemployment ranks this summer. Then he failed to get an invite to an NHL training camp, so he decided to call Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather on Monday night to ask for a chance to join the Connecticut Whale. Sather consulted with Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld, who thought the rugged left wing might help the parent club and/or its AHL affiliate. Voros was delighted to sign a 25-game professional tryout contract on Tuesday and begin practicing with the Whale on Wednesday, and might make his Whale debut Sunday afternoon at Providence.

“I’m very fortunate to get the opportunity, and now my only goal is to help this team win,” said Voros, an eighth-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2001. “After playing for four years in the NHL, it still burns in my heart to play there. The season started without me having a team, and then I was waiting it out before I said I have to get playing. I called Mr. Sather and asked if I could play with the Whale and contribute if I could crack their lineup. He gave me a chance, and that’s what I’m doing now, one day at a time. All I’m concerned with is cracking this lineup and helping them win. Nothing else matters to me right now, and I’m really excited to be here.”

The 30-year-old Voros is actually happy to be anywhere, after what transpired in the second game of his sophomore year at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, where he had a full athletic scholarship and was named to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association All-Rookie team as a freshman. Voros drove to the net and fell on his leg, which kind of buckled and caused severe pain. The next day, he went for an X-ray, and doctors discovered a lump behind his left knee half the size of a baseball. After a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test, three doctors over the next six months diagnosed the problem as osteosarcoma, a type of malignant bone cancer.

Voros tried to play through his pain and the trauma of apparently having a malignant cancer, then the Devils fortunately stepped in and told him to get second and third opinions. Fortunately, Voros listened, and after three more biopsies, the tumor was deemed benign.

“Obviously I was very thankful for that,” Voros said.

Voros then began flying to his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle, Wash., to get tested and then have surgery around Christmas, a fitting time for a very religious individual. Doctors carved around his tumor, removed some of the femur and packed it with part of a cadaver.

“You go from on top of the world, thinking you might be a few months away from signing your first NHL contract, to being in a hospital bed with doctors telling you that in the next 48 hours you might have a life-or-death situation and that the best case scenario is you’re losing your leg from the hip down,” Voros said. “But it was more scary for my mom and dad and two little sisters, who definitely took it a lot tougher than me. At least when something happens to yourself, you’re kind of in the moment with the ups and downs. You don’t really notice them as they happen.

“The greatest experiences of your life you kind of take for granted as they’re happening, and the worst you kind of daze through them. I guess I felt kind of invincible at the time, and I guess that’s how I had to be. No matter what doctors told me, I always would ask how long before I could skate again, what types of procedures can we have to save as much of my leg as possible. I just had this mentality that I would make it no matter what, and God was very good to me.”

The surgeries were a success, but while Voros was recovering, he contracted a staph infection and had a Hickman line inserted into his heart. He had tubes attached to a pack that fed antibiotics into his system all day every day for eight weeks. He had to flush the tubes out daily with saline because the end of the tube by his heart would clot. He ended up having six operations and losing 50 pounds, dropping from 205 to 155.

But Voros worked overtime to regain the weight and his form so he could play his final collegiate season (2003-04), and then signed with the Devils.

“I was very blessed to have persevered with the help of a lot of people,” Voros said. “The people who are around me – my mom, my dad and God … I was very blessed.”

But hard work runs in the family, as his grandparents emigrated from Hungary in 1956 and settled in Vancouver after leaving during the Hungarian Revolution. In an interview in 2008, Voros said he is proud of his Hungarian roots and would love to represent Hungary on the international level if it were permissible.

“When the Rangers opened the season in Prague (Czech Republic) a few years ago, Hungary TV was there,” Voros recalled. “I had poked around about the opportunity to play for the national team because it would have obviously made my dad very proud. He didn’t get to see me play in the NHL because he passed away the summer before of a stroke.”

Still, after enjoying the minor miracle and some divine intervention, Voros played 21/2 seasons with the Devils’ top affiliate in Albany and then Lowell before being traded on March 1, 2007 to the Minnesota Wild for a seventh-round pick in 2008. After starting the 2007-08 season with the AHL’s Houston Aeros, Voros was called up and played his first NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 11, 2007. Five days later, he scored his first NHL goal against his hometown Vancouver Canucks and star goalie Roberto Luongo.

Voros had seven goals and seven assists in 55 games in his NHL rookie season and was the Wild’s nominee for the 2008 Bill Masterton Trophy, as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game, by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. While with the Wild, Voros usually played on the top line with current New York Rangers standout wing Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra, a 16-year NHL veteran who was among the 35 members of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia to die in a plane crash on Sept. 7.

“That was very tough,” Voros said of Demitra’s death. “We were good friends when we played in Minny and golfed a lot when I was there for one summer. He and I and Gabby hung out a bit, used to eat together, and then we kept in touch off and on through the years. His death is really terrible. What people say and what you’ve heard are true. You really won’t find a better guy or teammate. He’s the kind of guy that if you spend a little bit of time with him, he grasps you, he touches you. Everything about him was great. He was a great person, so his death is definitely heart-wrenching. But it was terrible for all those guys. It’s just unfortunate.”

Despite the strong friendship with Gaborik and Demitra, Voros signed a three-year, $3.3 million contract with the Rangers on July 1, 2008, fulfilling a childhood dream to play for the team he grew up rooting for 3,000 miles away in Vancouver.

“I was a huge Mark Messier fan and kind of mentored my game after him,” Voros said. “When he got traded to the Rangers when I was 10, I just stuck with wherever he went. I was borderline obsessed.”

Voros was especially obsessed in the spring of 1994, when Messier and close friend/fellow future Hall of Famer Brian Leetch, a native of Cheshire and playoff MVP, led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup, beating the Canucks in seven games to end a 54-year title drought.

“I think I was suspended from elementary school the day we (the Rangers) won the Cup for some sort of elementary school prank,” Voros said with a smile. “They sent me home early, so I had to delay my own personal Stanley Cup parade for the next day. But I was definitely an obnoxious Rangers fan in Vancouver.

“I didn’t go home this year during the Stanley Club finals (the Canucks lost in seven games to the Boston Bruins), but you would be hard pressed to find a city that was as passionate as Vancouver was in 1994. I know people there, and Vancouver is more ‘corporate-y’ now. Back then, it was more blue-collar. The landscape of that city has definitely changed.”

When Voros’ first shot at free agency arrived, he jumped at the opportunity to sign with the Rangers.

“As you grow older, you kind of lose touch of your favorite team and more fill up your own career,” Voros said. “Your commitment and focus goes to that, and you kind of lose touch with what’s going on in other leagues. But my whole life I considered myself a diehard Rangers fan, and when the Rangers called during the first chance I had at free agency, it was definitely a no-brainer.”

Voros had 11 goals, 12 assists and 211 penalty minutes in 95 games with the Rangers before he and forward Ryan Hillier were dealt to the Anaheim Ducks for defenseman Steve Eminger on July 9, 2010. Voros was scoreless with 43 penalty minutes in 12 games with the Ducks before he sustained a broken orbital bone above his left eye in a fight with Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa on Dec. 8, 2010. Voros was placed on the Ducks’ injured reserve list until Feb. 11 and then was scoreless in two games with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch, before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 15 for a conditional seventh-round pick in this year’s NHL draft. He had three goals, four assists and 61 PIM in 26 games with the Toronto Marlies but wasn’t re-signed in the offseason and eventually called Sather.

Voros’ ties to New York had already been enhanced in May, when he, Avery and Lundqvist opened their first restaurant in Manhattan called “Tiny’s & the Bar Upstairs”. It’s located at 135 West Broadway in the Tribeca district of southern Manhattan and has become a favorite among the local community. Later that month, Voros, Avery and future Rangers center Brad Richards, the plum of the offseason free-agent crop, vacationed together in Jamaica.

“After playing for the Rangers for a couple of years, I was able to form a lot of relationships and set a couple of roots down like anyone who falls in love with the area does,” Voros said. “I was very fortunate to have some good friends, and we are obviously still great friends, plus Sean is my best friend, so it was a good scenario. I live up here now, but the city is definitely a great place.”

As for his friendship with the enigmatic Avery, who plays a similar gritty style, Voros smiled and said, “I like to think we’re almost yin and yang. But we match well. He’s very bright and very calculated. He’s almost just misunderstood and has got his own resume.”

Like Whale forward Jordan Owens did, Voros would like to add to his resume and convert a PTO into an AHL contract. Then maybe he could return to the NHL, where he had 18 goals, 19 assists and 395 penalty minutes in 162 games with the Wild, Rangers and Ducks.

Whale coach Ken Gernander knew the kind of player that he was getting before Voros even arrived Wednesday.

“He’s got a bit of grit to his game, he’s got some size (6 feet 4, 210 pounds) and is obviously a capable player having played at the NHL level and having some veteran experience,” Gernander said. “There’s quite a package there, but he had just been waiting as a free agent and skating kind of on his own, so there’s a difference between conditioning and game shape. We’ll just kind of monitor him and see when we can get him in.”

After all that Voros has had to endure, he can wait another few days, if necessary, to start his latest comeback.

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