Few players have waited longer or journeyed further to taste NHL glory than Tim Thomas, whose pluck in goal ended the Bruins' title drought and made him the toast of Boston
This is an article from the June 27, 2011 issue
Not once during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup, when he faced a record number of shots and made a record number of saves, had Tim Thomas run out of steam. But last Saturday morning, standing on a riser of a duck boat and waving to a happy throng packed so deep that the sidewalks of downtown Boston had disappeared, he finally faltered. "Man, my arm is tired," said the workhorse goalie as he lowered his right hand. "I need a break." The task of acknowledging everyone who wanted to thank him, apparently, was just too much.
There is no shortage of New Englanders eager to thank Thomas, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the NHL playoffs. Fans at the Bruins' victory parade lined the balconies at Government Center, clung to tree branches outside St. Paul's church, straddled barricades along Boylston Street and climbed the ledges of the public library at Copley Square. TIM'S MY GOVERNOR, said one sign. NO DOUBTING THOMAS, read another. Asked a third: HEY, TIMMY, WHAT TIME IS IT? TWENTY PAST LUONGO. In contrast to the ransacked storefronts, car fires and appalling lawlessness in downtown Vancouver hours after Thomas had shut out the Canucks 4--0 in Game 7 on June 15, this was a scene of exquisite joy from hundreds of thousands of fans. The Bruins had earned this reception by proving themselves worthy of the franchise's Lunchpail A.C. legacy, winning their first Stanley Cup in 39 years with a gritty and resilient playoff run. Boston dropped three of its four postseason series openers, twice trailed two games to none and survived one seventh-game overtime. After losing one high-scoring forward (Marc Savard) to a season-ending concussion in January, the club lost another (Nathan Horton) to a series-ending concussion in the finals' third game.
On Saturday, adulation and confetti rained down on Thomas, who flicked an orange sliver off his bushy red playoff beard (most of his teammates were by now clean-shaven) before ceding Cup-holding duty to captain Zdeno Chara. Then one by one Thomas took his children—Kiley, 10, Kelsey, 7, and Keegan, 5—in his beefy arms to look over the throngs. "See how far back it goes," he told Keegan. "Can you hug all those people?"
Certainly they could all hug Thomas, the 37-year-old who is quintessentially Boston, a metropolis with a small-town ethos bordered everywhere by cradles of academia. Tough, but smart. "This is a blue-collar city, and his success took a ton of hard work," says Bruins president Cam Neely. "Our fans are sharp. They respect battlers and see through phonies. They see their best qualities in Timmy."
In the front of the lead duck boat, Tim Thomas Sr. recalled the boy who would ask his father to toss him footballs near the backyard bushes outside their Flint, Mich., home so he'd have to dive into them to make a catch. "It was more of a challenge that way," the junior Thomas says. He would even attempt to make diving catches in the street until the day he collided with a slow-moving car. Yes, thanks, just a scrape. Oh, and how is your Buick?
In 1980 a five-year-old Thomas watched goaltender Jim Craig play beyond his means to lead Team USA to its Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union and, with a win over Finland two days later, the Olympic gold medal. "From then on," says Thomas, "I wanted to be a goalie." Within a few years Tim Sr. and his wife, Kathy, had pawned their wedding rings for $300 so they could send Tim to a peewee tournament. The father sold cars and, later, local produce, and at 16 the son went door-to-door peddling bushels of apples. "He was determined to be the best at that too," says Tim Sr., 57. "Sometimes if people wouldn't answer the door, he'd peek around the back to go find them. He'd sell about five bushels and make $40, and he'd stay out until he made it."
In his yearbook at Davison (Mich.) High, Thomas was dubbed Rip Van Winkle because he could sleep through classes yet still maintain an A average, frustrating teachers by having the right answer when they woke him up. "I don't think it was hard enough for him," Tim Sr. says with a smile. He fondly recalls Tim's high school paper on his ambitions and goals. There was no mention of hockey; instead he wrote of hoping to live up to Tim Sr.'s example as a husband and father of two.
Thomas attended Vermont and as a junior led the Catamounts to their first Frozen Four berth, in 1996. An English major, he was especially taken with Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's epic novel about rugged individualism, which he reread this year. "I think it influenced my life and even the way I play goal," he says. The book's theme has certainly served him well as a self-made goaltender, one who never gave up in the face of long odds.
Though Thomas, who had been selected in the ninth round by the Nordiques in '94, often excelled in net, he was unable to stick in the NHL. He played for nine teams in five leagues, including a stint in Sweden and three tours in Finland, between 1997 and 2005. He played four games for the Bruins in 2002--03 after they signed him as a free agent, but didn't get a full-time shot in the NHL until '05--06, when the club once again picked him up off the free-agent scrap heap. He was coming off a season with Finnish league runner-up Jokerit in which he had 15 shutouts in 54 games, but Boston started him in the minors with Providence, where he spent the first third of the season before getting called up. "I had made peace with the fact that I wasn't going to get a chance," Thomas says. "I was O.K. with it."
Given the NHL's preference for tall goalies who fill up the net, Thomas's height, generously listed at 5'11", did not help his cause. But more than that, the advent of the butterfly technique had caused goaltending to become a matter of puck repulsion by geometric equation, with an emphasis on positioning in order to cut down angles and allow only for openings up high, which are tougher for shooters to hit. Thomas's style is intuition over science. He scrambles from his crease, attacking shooters, relying on instinct and reflex, even embracing contact with screeners to get better looks at pucks, the boy diving into the bushes. It's fun to watch and maddening to face. "You can't really scout him," says one rival NHL goalie coach, "because he has no pattern." His unusual approach was enough to make general managers leery of signing him. And he still must deal with the occasional skeptic. Thomas hosted a clinic three years ago along with Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa when one prospective netminder, a 10-year-old girl, watched his demonstration and said, "But wait, that's wrong."
Thomas has never compromised his aggression, not even during the finals. As the series went on, the Canucks often made extra lateral passes in an attempt to catch him out of position or stood behind him when he'd leave his crease, trying to create contact and draw penalties. Such tactics worked just once, on Maxim Lapierre's winning goal from the lower left slot in Game 5, when Thomas was caught ranging too far in the opposite direction. But by Game 7 he had seemingly rented a room inside Vancouver's collective psyche. "We can have a plan," said Canucks captain Henrik Sedin, who had only one point in the series, "but you always underestimate how quick he recovers." Even after Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo criticized Thomas, saying he'd have made the save on Lapierre because his own butterfly style kept him farther back in his crease, Thomas didn't waver. When Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows encroached on his space, Thomas slashed him on the leg and wrestled him to the ice. When a puck popped in front of Sedin, Thomas floored the center with a shoulder check rather than give him a chance to settle the puck for a point-blank shot from the slot. "Tim has opened the door for smaller, more athletic, aggressive goalies," says Kevin Woodley, editor of the goaltending periodical InGoal Magazine. "Largely because of Tim's success, you can't just be a blocker out there; you have to [be able to] abandon technique and channel your inner street hockey when the situation calls for it."
While most goalies wear cat-eye masks, with protective bars that are horizontal above the eyes and follow facial contours down the cheeks, Thomas feels those bars obstruct both the highest and lowest fields of his vision. Instead, his mask has vertical, jail-style bars that are as widely spaced and thin as possible. "I read an article that the human eye can block those out easier," he says. When Thomas asked Sportmask, which makes his headgear, to find a suitable cage last year, the best available prototype was, in fact, a Darth Vader Halloween mask. Whatever works.
Thomas once thwarted a bear in the wild before he became one on the ice. Nine years ago in northern Manitoba he sat in a tree with a knife clenched between his teeth, and took down a grizzly with a bow and arrow after dark. "Looking back," he says, "I probably should have had some gun [instead of a knife for] backup, or another plan."
He was the Bruins' backup plan when they recalled him from the minors five years ago after Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen went down with injuries. Thomas not only assumed the starter's role for the first time in 2006 at age 31, but he also went on to win the Vezina Trophy in '09. His hardnosed approach won over both teammates and fans. "Everything about Tim speaks to his work ethic and his integrity," says defenseman Andrew Ference. "His game isn't fancy; it's honest."
So is his postgame. Before speaking, Thomas will pause to consider his answer rather than blurt out a cliché. Ask him which players are most effective at screening him and he thinks for a few seconds before singling out the Red Wings' Tomas Holmstrom, because he gets out of the way at the last instant; the Thrashers' (now Winnipeg's) Dustin Byfuglien, who takes up so much room and is very hard to move; and the Kings' Ryan Smyth, who is very skilled at directing pucks and not just tipping them.
And unlike players who insist they don't read newspapers or keep souvenirs, Thomas admits to having vast stores of memorabilia and clips, because, he says, "I never know when this will be over, and I'll want to look back and be amazed by it."
Ask him why Bostonians take to him and again he stops to ponder. "Can I give you an analogy?" he asks. "As my beard grew in these playoffs, I went from looking like a leprechaun to a logger to a hobo by the finals. At each stage different types of people can relate to me in different ways." Half of Boston would be happy to buy him a cold one—even if he never wore pads.
Last spring Thomas played through a torn left labrum and two bone chips in his left hip. He lost his job to Tuukka Rask, and the Bruins blew a 3--0 lead in the second round against the Flyers. After healing from off-season surgery, Thomas regained his starter's role from Rask early in the season and put together one of the best goaltending campaigns in NHL history. His .938 save percentage set a record, and his 2.00 goals-against average was tops in the league. In the postseason he set marks for the most shots faced (849) and most saves (798), and he held Vancouver, the NHL's top-scoring team, to eight goals in seven games. He will likely win his second Vezina Trophy this week.
Soon after dismounting the duck boat, Thomas was admiring his children's makeshift hockey game in a TD Garden hallway, and looking forward to simple family time with his wife, Melissa. He wrestled with only one regret. His grandfather Charles Thomas was suffering from Alzheimer's, he said, scratching his cap and rubbing an eye at the thought. "He used to call me Champ all the time until I started to believe it," Thomas said. "I wanted all this to happen sooner so he could see that I'd actually become one."
Now on Twitter
Follow @si_nhl for news, updates and opinion throughout the off-season.