July 16, 2011

From NEHJ: Thomas' tale the ultimate feel-good story

By Jesse Connolly

As spectators of the wide world of sports, we often come across what are fondly known as feel-good stories. 

Bruins goalie Tim Thomas seals his historic season with a kiss on the Stanley Cup after shutting out the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Bruins goalie Tim Thomas seals his historic season with a kiss on the Stanley Cup after shutting out the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7. (Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

They are tales of the little guy following a long and winding road to the big stage, of heroes falling on hard times and looking down and out, only to lift themselves up off the mat and fight their way back to the top.

But oftentimes their marvelous feats are just tiny blips on our radar, anecdotes nestled away in an obscure spot in our newspapers. As the old adage goes: here today, gone tomorrow.

If Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had skated out onto the ice and into the blue-painted crease in just one single, solitary game in the National Hockey League, that alone would have been one of those routine feel-good stories.

But Thomas’ story is more than routine. His story has made an entire city, an entire region feel good about its beloved hockey team, about its star goaltender and about itself. His story is one for the ages.

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From the time the Flint, Mich., native graduated from the University of Vermont until the day he made his NHL debut for the Boston Bruins on Oct. 19, 2002, Thomas played for eight professional teams in five different leagues spanning four countries.

Year after year, Thomas was told countless times he didn’t have what it took to play at the sport’s highest level. No matter how much heart, determination and athleticism he showed along the way, it didn’t matter. All potential suitors saw was a 5-foot-11 netminder who foolishly thought succeeding in the 21st century with a non-butterfly style was actually possible. To them, it was sheer blasphemy.

The husband and father of three, whose family stuck by him through thick and thin along his journey through the minors and Europe, is now a two-time winner of the Vezina Trophy, a recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy and, above all else, a Stanley Cup champion.

But even up until Thomas finally accomplished the latter, doing so with his second shutout of the finals in a 4-0 victory June 15 in Game 7 in Vancouver, the doubts always lingered.

After watching him surpass Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen on the depth chart in back-to-back seasons, the Bruins were still reluctant to make him the go-to goaltender. They went out and acquired a proven commodity in Manny Fernandez, a co-winner of the 2007 Jennings Trophy with the Wild.

Fernandez missed all but four games in 2007-08 due to a knee injury but gave Thomas a real push in 2008-09 as the two split time in the first half of the season. But Thomas found another gear, using Fernandez’ presence as motivation. He eventually earned the lion’s share of starts and helped the Bruins finish with the best record in the conference. And when the year was all said and done, the Bruins battler between the pipes finally got the recognition he deserved.

“I never really allowed myself to believe I might win, because it seemed like such a far-away dream,” Thomas said while accepting his first Vezina in 2009. “When you look at the names on the Vezina Trophy, they’re legends and it’s humbling to even be mentioned in the same sentence. I’ve been more worried about getting my name on a roster than I have been about winning a Vezina Trophy.”

Finally, at long last, the former Catamount began a season at the top of the depth chart going into 2009-10. But the biggest challenge he’d ever faced was in store, and it was an internal one. Thomas’ Finnish understudy, Tuukka Rask, was supposed to be the goalie of the future in Boston, but that changed when the rookie thrived and Thomas couldn’t overcome a hip injury that significantly hindered his mobility.

After watching Rask lead the league in both goals-against average and save percentage, and carry the Bruins to within a win of reaching the conference finals, Thomas didn’t know if he’d ever be the same after surgery that summer. Following the procedure, Thomas tuned out rampant trade speculation and the countless number of people writing him off, focusing solely on the intense rehab process that lied ahead of him.

“Well, I had a pretty good idea pretty early into camp that I would at least be able to play at a level that was high enough to play in the NHL and earn my own self-respect back,” Thomas said. “So it wasn’t a difficult thing. Last summer, going through the work that it took to get myself to the level I wanted to be at, that was a lot of hard work. I was doing three workouts a day.

“I was pretty much exhausted all the time because that’s what I knew it would take. But it’s all paid off. And it’s a story that, if you put in the work, it pays off.”

Did it ever. After blanking the Coyotes in his first start, Thomas became the first goalie in NHL history to win his first five starts of a season while allowing no more than one goal in each game, and only the second goalie since 1967 to have at least three shutouts in his first six games.

Everyone kept waiting for him to fall back down to earth, for his age or his hip to catch up to him, for a resurgence from Rask. Thomas couldn’t possibly continue to string together superhuman performances for an entire season, could he?

He could. He did.

The 37-year-old netminder capped off the regular season by topping Dominik Hasek’s 1998-99 record for save percentage in a single season (.9381), making him a slam dunk for a second Vezina as the Bruins embarked on the playoffs with high hopes. While Thomas was the No. 1 reason people believed the Bruins had a chance of going the distance, no one thought he could match the stellar numbers he posted during the regular season against the league’s top teams and brightest stars on a nightly basis.

He didn’t. He was even better.

After helping the Bruins dispatch the Canadiens, Flyers and Lightning en route to a Stanley Cup Finals clash with the Canucks, Thomas backboned the Bruins to their first championship in 39 years with a performance for the ages. The Bruins’ netminder yielded just eight goals to Vancouver — a team that won the President’s Trophy and led the league in scoring — over the course of the seven-game series, putting the finishing touches on one of the most remarkable playoff runs in history.

Thomas set NHL records for the most saves and shots faced in both a single playoff year and the Stanley Cup Finals, and became the first goalie to ever post a shutout on the road in Game 7 in the final round of the postseason. At the NHL Awards show a week later, he became the first netminder to win the Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup in the same year since Flyers’ Hall of Famer Bernie Parent in 1975.

So now, when Thomas’ name gets mentioned among the likes of Parent, Patrick Roy, Billy Smith or even his idol, Hasek, he no longer deserves to be deemed the outlier. After an indescribably spectacular season, one that never would have happened were it not for the infinite amount of resolve he possesses, Thomas has proven himself worthy of being considered one of the league’s all-time greatest goaltenders.

“I haven’t had that much time to think about something like that,” Thomas said. “And when I do get the time this summer, I’m going to try as hard as I can not to think of something like that because I’m still playing. The way I feel is I have plenty of good years ahead of me. And the goal is always to get better. I think that should be everybody’s approach in life at whatever they choose to do. So I’d like to see what I can do to raise the bar higher and push myself to the limits.”

Never satisfied, Thomas is still writing his story — one that won’t ever be forgotten. His mesmerizing list of accomplishments, each of which he was continually told he could never pull off, is now the stuff of legends.

He is an inspiration. He is a champion.

Tim Thomas is the ultimate feel-good story.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com