Bruins stars Brad Marchand and Tim Thomas are two of the NHL season's biggest surprise success stories. (Shaun Best/Reuters)
By Stu Hackel
The two most compelling figures of the Stanley Cup Final were the Bruins' Tim Thomas, a 37-year-old goalie who had a spectacular season and postseason, and Brad Marchand, a 23-year-old rookie who is still learning what the NHL is all about, but learning fast.
Thomas' Conn Smythe Trophy performance as the playoff's' most valuable player comes with some terrific statistics, which we'll touch on in a moment. But his everyman persona and humble origins strike a note with most people in hockey. Unlike some in the sport who come from privileged backgrounds, Thomas grew up in less-than affluent surroundings, and while his parents sacrificed for him to play just as other hockey parents did, they had far less money to sacrifice. Here's a TSN piece on Thomas's Flint, Michigan upbringing...
...and here's a story about his Flint hockey days from the local paper in which high school teammates say he played the same aggressive style then that he does now.
Thomas' perseverance in his battle to go as far as his talent would allow him against many obstacles is one of the defining aspects of his career. One story not often told about him was that his first roadblock came when he was playing junior hockey in the NAHL for the Lakeland Jets in Waterford, MI. He had been a teenage standout, but his career stalled with Lakeland because the Jets' coach played the team's other goalie the entire first half of the season. According to Kevin Paul Dupont of The Boston Globe, Thomas even volunteered to play forward or fight just to get in the lineup.
Then fate intervened.
Joe Murphy, the NHL forward who had once been the first overall draft pick of the Red Wings, was holding out during the 1992-93 season for a better contract with the Blackhawks. Murphy began skating with the Jets to stay in shape. In practices, he had a hard time getting the puck past Thomas. "Joe turned to the coach one day and said, 'How come this kid isn't playing?' " recalled Thomas. "That was my big break there."
Thomas began playing regularly for the Jets and that got him noticed by the University of Vermont, where Marty St. Louis was a teammate. His road from there to the NHL wasn't quick or smooth. He was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round of the 1994 draft, but didn't get to the NHL until 2002-03, playing first in the ECHL, IHL, Finland, AHL, Sweden, back to the NHL and probably a few other stops in between.
Fans love stories of determination like that, but they love a guy more when he never forgets where he comes from and whose attitude and personality are down to earth. We'll never forget the TV images of Thomas smiling through his mask during games after making one of his amazing stops this spring.
The NHL sent out a post-series press release which included some of Thomas' remarkable playoff achievements. They include:
* NHL record for most saves in one playoff year (798)
* NHL record for most shots faced in one playoff year (849)
* NHL record for most saves in the Stanley Cup Final (238)
* fourth all-time for most shots faced in the Stanley Cup Final (246)
* 11-1 record when facing 35 or more shots
* led all NHL goaltenders in goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (.940) and
shared the lead in shutouts (four) in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs
* first goaltender in NHL history to post a shutout on the road in Game 7 of the
Stanley Cup Final
* 1.15 goals-against average in the Stanley Cup Final, lowest in the modern era
among goaltenders with at least five appearances
* .967 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Final, third all-time and tops among
goaltenders with at least five appearances
* 13th goaltender since 1927 to post multiple shutouts in the Stanley Cup Final (two)
* 52 saves on 54 shots in the Bruins' 3-2 win at Philadelphia in Game 2 of the Eastern
* stopped all 24 shots in 1-0 shutout victory over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern
* first shutout by a Bruins goaltender in the Stanley Cup Final since May 18, 1978, when
Gerry Cheevers made 16 saves to blank Montreal 4-0 in Game 3 at Boston Garden (Game 3).
Then there's "The Rat," five-foot-nine Brad Marchand, whose combination of snarly, over the top play and exciting, timely scoring made him the best skater on either team in the final.
It's not hard to fathom that the same player who scored this signature series goal in Game 3...
...also clotheslined Christian Ehrhoff and submarined Daniel Sedin on the same play...
...but it's a throwback sort of identity he's forging, not one that we often see in the post-lockout NHL. Marchand is not a clean player and one suspects both his team and his team's fans don't mind too much.
That Rat nickname is an homage to another former Bruins agitator, Ken Linseman, although it could be that Marchand has a bigger offensive upside. The nickname I always thought would fit him better was the one that was given to former Devil and Red Wing Pat Verbeek: the "Little Ball of Hate."
From Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia, where folks cheered mightily for Boston this spring, Marchand was one of the local boys who played junior for the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (and here's a story on his junior days from a local Halifax paper).
Marchand was with the Providence Bruins prior to making the big club. "When Marchand was plugging away in Providence from 2008 to 2010 hoping to earn a shot in the NHL, I don’t know anyone who believed that he had the potential to one day be a stud on a Stanley Cup champion, writes Mark Divver, the assistant sports editor of The Providence Journal, who also thinks Marchand deserves the "Little Ball of Hate" moniker. "A third- or fourth-liner, maybe. An effective NHL player in that role, probably. But never a star of this magnitude, with five goals in the finals, several of them clutch."
Divver reports that in a P-Bruins 2009 playoff series against the Worcester Sharks, Marchand's play was so out of control that it openly embarrassed his teammates. Divver asked him about his teammates' comments and "he went off for a good five minutes, carving the Sharks players in the crudest possible terms," Divver wrote. "Too bad, I thought, knowing that 99 percent of what he’d said was unusable.
"I was back at the office later writing a story for The Journal web site when my cell phone rang. On the other end of the line I heard a boyish voice: 'This is Brad Marchand.'
"Sheepishly, he said that he might have crossed the line –– might have? –– and asked politely whether I could tone down his comments and keep him out of trouble. Not a problem, I told him, because so much of what he’d said wasn’t fit for print anyway...."
"I thought of that incident after the TV cameras caught Marchand punching Daniel Sedin four times in the face late in Game Six, with no response from the Swedish superstar," Divver continued, although it's actually seven times.
"Sedin looked like a beaten dog. When Marchand was asked after the game why he did it, he answered, 'Because I felt like it.'
"That’s the little ball of hate. Love him if he’s on your team, can’t stand him if he’s not."
His 11 playoff goals (second most for a rookie) and 19 points were essential, but Marchand's physical agitation symbolized the 2011 Stanley Cup Final’s temperament better than anyone's.