My Sportsman: Tim Thomas
Tim Thomas is a stand-up guy, not a stand-up goalie. That's not his style.
So what is his style? Well, that's a tough call. Thomas is like free verse or abstract art, better appreciated than analyzed. His gift of improvisation, for doing whatever he needs to keep the puck out of the Boston Bruins' net, is usually compared to the approach a road hockey goalie would take although Thomas is so combative that if he did take his act on the road he might stare down the oncoming Chevy or, at the very least, whack its tires with his stick.
Like snowflakes, no two Thomas saves are exactly alike. Nor are two seasons by any NHL goalie exactly alike, although when you consider Thomas in 2011 and riffle through the well-thumbed pages of memory until you stumble upon Bernie Parent in the mid-1970s, the similarities are striking.
The fans in Philadelphia used to say that only the Lord saved more than Parent, who, in 1974 and 1975, won the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies as his Flyers captured consecutive Stanley Cups. In 2010-11, Thomas had the most comprehensively successful season of any goalie since Parent.
Thomas won the all the hardware and did it with numbers, albeit compiled in the Dead Puck Era and not the firewagon '70s, that gleamed as brightly as Parent's. Thomas' .938 save percentage broke Dominik Hasek's single-season record. He also led the NHL with a 2.00 goals-against average. In the playoffs, Thomas was even better statistically: a .940 save percentage, 1.98 GAA, and four shutouts in 25 games, as the Bruins won three Game 7s to capture the heritage franchise's first Stanley Cup since the glory days of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.
Thomas protected his net the way a troll guards his bridge. Based on sheer numbers -- not the least of which was the Bruins' ending a Cup drought of 39 years -- Thomas might deserve consideration as SI's Sportsman of the Year.
But SI's award also involves, you know, sportsmanship.
So let's return to Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final. Max Lapierre scored Vancouver's 1-0 win, a goal in which Thomas' hyper-aggressiveness undermined his chances of making the save. (Again, think road hockey.) After pitching the shutout, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo said of Thomas' inability to make the save on Lapierre, "It's not hard if you're playing in the paint. It's an easy save for me ..."
Then something truly remarkable happened: Nothing. Thomas, a thoughtful and quick-witted fellow, offered no riposte, no smart-aleck reply. He conceded that he had heard Luongo's comment but, facing elimination matches in Games 6 and 7, had decided that he had to husband his energy rather than get into a hissing match with the man positioned some 190 feet away. The closest thing to a retort Thomas would offer occurred later in the series when Luongo, apparently dealing with self-esteem issues, whinged, "I've been pumping his tires since the series started. I haven't heard one nice thing he's had to say about me."
Thomas: "I didn't realize it was my job to pump his tires. I guess I have to apologize for that."
And Thomas did, in a way. After the Game 7 win by the doughty Bruins, Thomas, in the handshake line following his 4-0 masterpiece, told Luongo he thought he was a first-rate goalie.
Thomas was raised outside of Flint, Mich., by a family of modest means. The stories are well known. He sold apples at a roadside stand to help the family make ends meet. His parents, Tim Sr. and Kathy, sold their wedding rings in order to finance his trip to a goalie school. It seems like they did a good job of raising him, not merely as a goalie but as a man.
And yes, a Sportsman.