November 11, 2012

From NEHJ: Small college, big dreams

By Mike Zhe

The weekend was winding down and Kyle Thomas had just watched New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady throw his second interception of the game, one that would ultimately prove costly in a 24-23 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last month. 

Norwich senior standout Kyle Thomas could be the next Division 3 player to reach the NHL. (Photo: Norwich University)

No, not everything is going Thomas’ way these days.

It just seems like it.

As Norwich University heads into another anticipated hockey season, it does so with one of the most talented senior classes in Division 3. At the heart of that class is Thomas, a 6-foot, 180-pound winger from Waltham, Mass., who — in very un-Division 3-like fashion — has spent the last two summers at the Minnesota Wild development camp as he tries to build the foundation for a career in the NHL.

“It’s a good story,” said Norwich coach Mike McShane (Wakefield, Mass.). “He’s a good story.”

If it needed a title, it could steal one from a film about football, not hockey: “All the Right Moves.” Because from the time he entered Waltham High School as an undersized freshman in 2004, to the year he spent developing with the South Shore Kings in the EJHL, to his career at Norwich, to the weeks he’s spent rubbing shoulder pads with future NHL players, the moves have been so true they always seemed choreographed.

“I really couldn’t ask for anything more,” Thomas said.

If Thomas’ progression was a line chart, it would be one that began taking off like a jet once his size caught up with his skill. After four years playing for Waltham High — and generating scant little recruiting interest but for a couple of local Division 3 schools — he spent a year growing both his body and his stock with the South Shore Kings.

At Norwich, he burst onto the scene as a freshman and was a key player on a national championship team. He’s got 97 points and three Division 3 Frozen Fours on his college résumé, and this year he will serve as an alternate captain under classmate Pier-Olivier Cotnoir for the Cadets, who are again on many observers’ short list of potential national champions.

From Division 3 to the NHL? It’s happened before at Norwich. It could happen again soon.

“That’s definitely something I’d love to do,” Thomas said. “It’s something I’ve always thought about. The fact that it’s a reality now makes you want to work that much harder.”

Family ties

But back to football.

Kyle’s father, Bill Thomas, played three seasons in the NFL in the early 1970s, one each with the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Oilers and Kansas City Chiefs. But where he really left his mark was at Boston College, where he was a standout running back on some good teams under coach Joe Yukica.

A native of Ossining, N.Y., Bill’s own college experience got a little sunnier after Joe Namath led his beloved New York Jets to victory in Super Bowl III in 1969. That led, indirectly, to his introduction to hockey.

“The Jets had just won the Super Bowl,” Bill recalled. “I was from New York and a big Jets fan, and I was very happy about that. I was told by the (BC) kids from Massachusetts to wait until the Bruins got the Rangers.

“I said, ‘Who are the Bruins and Rangers?’”

A golden age of hockey was dawning in Boston but Thomas, who would go on to be drafted in the first round in 1972 by the Cowboys, paid it only a passing glance. It wasn’t until Kyle was 6 that hockey appeared again on dad’s radar screen, and he admittedly didn’t see it coming.

“Both of my parents didn’t know hockey,” Kyle said. “When I was 6 I told them I want to play and they looked at me like I was crazy. But I kept bothering them and they eventually let me play.”

“I was quite surprised,” said Bill Thomas. “I didn’t know he could skate that well. But once I watched him play and saw he was very serious about playing, my wife and I were very supportive of him doing that.”

Kyle had picked up the game hanging around his older brother Mike, and his brother’s friend, Marc, who happened to be a hockey player. He also had a hockey-playing friend in the first grade who badgered him to ask his parents if he, too, could play.

“When he first started, we had to call my son’s friend’s father, to help him get dressed for the game,” Bill said. “He came down and showed us how to do the pads and everything.”

Kyle was fast enough, skilled enough and scrappy enough to make the varsity at Waltham High as a freshman. Still, coach John Maguire couldn’t help looking up into the stands at Bill Thomas — who was 6-foot-3, 225 pounds in his own playing days and a regular at the rink for games — and wonder if the growth spurt would skip a generation.

“He started out not quite the same size and shape as he is today,” chuckled Maguire. “He might have been 110 pounds as a freshman. … I remember looking at the size of his dad and wondering, ‘Is Kyle ever going to sprout?’ ”

Norwich coach Mike McShane says Kyle Thomas is one of the fastest kids he's ever coached. (Photo by Jay Ericson/Norwich University)

By the time his junior season came around, Kyle had, to some extent. He elevated his game, leading the Hawks to the title in the Greater Boston League as a junior and senior. As a senior, after being denied in a play-in game the year before, he helped Waltham reach the Super 8 tournament, the pinnacle of Massachusetts high school hockey.

“Junior year he had a growth spurt,” Bill said. “I was hoping he would, but if it didn’t, it didn’t really matter because he was going to be the same type of player that he is — he was always fast and had a tenacious attitude. He didn’t back down.”

That set up the next question: Where to go from there?

Following the path

These days, the poster child for using Norwich hockey as a springboard to pro hockey is Keith Aucoin (Chelmsford, Mass.), who enjoyed a breakthrough year with the Capitals last year after some All-Star seasons in the AHL and signed with the Maple Leafs this summer. Keith and his younger brother, Phil, skated at Norwich, with Phil fashioning a nice pro career overseas. Kurtis McLean got a call-up with the Islanders in 2008-09.

“I knew all about the Aucoin brothers,” Thomas said. “I’m good friends with one of their cousins. I’d heard a lot about Norwich growing up and when they approached me I was really happy about it.”

McShane stumbled across Thomas almost by accident. The Cadets were supposed to be skating in a tournament in Fitchburg, Mass., one that got canceled when an ice storm hit the region.

“Someone said, ‘There’s a (junior) game on the South Shore,’ ” McShane said, “so we went down and he really caught my eye.”

Thomas, who decided after graduating from Waltham to play a year of juniors with the South Shore Kings, was in the lineup for a matinee game against the Green Mountain Glades. “It was one of my better games up to that point in the season,” he recalled. “I remember getting a lot of ice time and a few points that game.”

That set the wheels in motion. He didn’t light up the EJHL (27 points), but he did pack 15 pounds onto his frame and was invited to visit Norwich, a program that had long been on his radar. He was mesmerized by the arena, campus and game-night atmosphere.

“Pretty much as soon as I walked in I knew I wanted to come here,” he said.

As a freshman, he surpassed McShane’s modest expectations by scoring 23 goals, after being slotted early on for third- or fourth-line duty. The Cadets stormed to their third Division 3 championship and Thomas was named Rookie of the Year in the ECAC East.

He’s added 16 goals in each of the past two seasons as he’s continued growing. An explosive skater — “One of the fastest kids I’ve ever coached,” McShane said — with a nose for the puck, he’s quick to pounce on mistakes and turn them into scoring chances.

The first thing many notice is his body. “Skinny legs,” McShane noted. “But his upper body, he looks like Hercules.”

But it’s what he’s done with that body that’s gotten him to this point.

“Two things: One, he’s extra competitive,” said Babson coach Jamie Rice (Newton, Mass.), who’s guided his team to the ECAC East championship game in three of the past four years, winning in 2008-09 and losing to Norwich the next two times. “As the game gets tighter, the game gets closer, the stakes get raised later on in the season, he steps up and delivers.

“Second thing is he’s a big, strong, good-skating kid. … And he’s an unfinished product. He gets better every year. I think he’s still got a pretty good window (of development) ahead of him.”

Maguire, the Waltham coach and a Babson alum (Class of ’82), does clinics on Monday nights at Reilly Memorial Rink at Cleveland Circle in Boston. One of the men he regularly shares the ice with is Rice, who’s been trying to slow down Thomas for three years now, and not often succeeding.

“There’s been a few Monday nights after a Babson-Norwich game where they’re not as friendly to me as they normally are,” Maguire said.

“Nice of a Babson alum to hook me up with him,” Rice countered.

The next level

After his breakout freshman year at Norwich, Thomas was contacted by the Maple Leafs, who invited him to their summer development camp. He declined, passing up a chance to play hockey so close to the NHL you could smell it, for something unquestionably non-glamorous: summer school classes.

But that wouldn’t be the only offer. Other teams followed suit the next year, including the Wild, who Thomas immediately liked. He liked their youth and future, and he liked that they made an effort to come see him play. The first time he attended their development camp, which was populated by recent top draft choices, he scored a goal in both scrimmages he participated in.

“Obviously, going in, you keep that stuff (whether you belong) in the back of your mind,” said Thomas, who’ll always wear his Division 3 status as some form of a hockey scarlet letter, “but you try not to think about it. Just do your job; do what you can do.”

This summer, he shared the ice with early-round draft picks like Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund, plus 2011 acquisition Charlie Coyle (Weymouth, Mass.) He got complimentary words from the team about his speed and took away an appreciation of how dedicated the full-time players are to their hockey lifestyles.

“A few teams have watched him,’ McShane said. “The Bruins have called me on him a couple of times. He had a chance to go to a couple different camps but he liked the Minnesota people.”

This is a crucial year for Thomas, who hopes to land a free-agent contract with an NHL team when it’s over. He knows there’s still work to do. He knows that he needs to keep working on his hands so that he’s better with the puck in tight areas. He knows his speed can be even better.

“He knows this year he has to get better,” said McShane. “He has to do more things than jump on a loose puck and blow by someone and score.”

Thomas might be skating for a Division 3 program but he knows he’s got a supporting cast many Division 1 players don’t have. Ask coaches around the ECAC East and you’ll find a split among whom they think is the best player on the team — Thomas or either of his linemates, Cotnoir and junior Travis Janke.

The senior class, made up of Thomas, Cotnoir and forwards Tory Allan, Colin Mulvey (Worcester, Mass.) and Blake Forkey, owns a record of 72-10-9, with three appearances in the Frozen Four and the national title in 2009-10.

“Our freshman class that came in the year we won it, that’s a great class,” Thomas said. “Obviously, none of this happens if I didn’t have the teammates to help me.”

But it is happening. Or, more accurately, Thomas is making it happen — professional sporting bloodlines notwithstanding.

“He understands what he needs to do in order to be successful at the next level,’ said Bill Thomas. “I’m always here for him if he needs anything and he knows that. But he’s always understood what he needed to do.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @MikeZhe603