August 9, 2011

The Goalie Guru: There's no way to measure heart

By Brion O'Connor

No one, it seems, has a lukewarm opinion about Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas. For some reason, the NHL’s reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s best goaltender elicits strong opinions, and not all of them are kind.

People either love or hate the acrobatic netminder from Flint, Mich. I can understand why folks enjoy watching the 37-year-old perform his game-time acts of legerdemain. The ones I can’t figure out are those who ridicule Thomas, calling him undisciplined and unpredictable, or mocking his dietary habits with taunts of “Tubby.” Who are these people?

It’s easy to dismiss the bandwagon-jumping, pink-hat fans who derided Thomas when, a year removed from his first Vezina campaign in 2008-09, he muddled through a middling 2009-10 campaign. Thomas and the Bruins prevailed in the Winter Classic at Fenway Park that year, but by season’s end, young Tuukka Rask, Thomas’s fabulous Finnish understudy, had become the darling of the know-it-all set.

But even during his remarkable bounce-back 2010-11 season, Thomas had serious detractors among hockey’s cognoscenti, people who supposedly are intimately familiar not only with the game but also the singular position of goaltending. Many goalies, and goalie coaches, sniffed at the media for heaping praise on Thomas, arguing that most ink-stained wretches don’t really know the game, or that Thomas benefits from a strong defense that specializes in keeping opponent shots to the outside. They delight in the occasional howler that Thomas gives up, conveniently forgetting that almost every goalie does the same.

Even among my coaching colleagues, Thomas is the guy that drives almost everyone nuts. The reasons were eerily similar to those that kept Thomas from breaking through the NHL barrier in the first place. He’s not a cookie-cutter stylist like the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. In fact, Thomas’s style was a distinct absence of style. To say that Thomas is unconventional is pure overstatement. While we typically teach a calm, compact approach, Thomas is all frenetic energy, with flailing arms and legs and stick.

But there is a method to Thomas’ goalmouth madness. He plays the game organically, with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, a sure sign that he can read the play. His lateral quickness is extraordinary, perhaps better than anyone playing the game right now. In a game predicated on getting the goalie to move, in order to open up net, Thomas’s knack to get centered on the puck at the precise moment the shot arrives is exceptional.

But that hasn’t stopped his detractors. Thomas can’t skate, they said. He’s a hot head. He’s too erratic. Through all the criticism, Thomas never once stopped believing in himself, and that proved contagious, to his teammates, and to many fans.

I’ve always rooted for Thomas. Maybe that’s because I’ve always been a fan of the underdog, and Thomas’s tortuous road to NHL stardom certainly qualifies him for the role. More than anything, I love the guy’s heart. Did I have him pegged as an NHL All-Star when he was toiling away for the Providence Bruins? Not a chance. But I can honestly say, with a straight face and my hand on a stack of Bibles, that I liked him. A lot.

The guy simply has won everywhere he’s played. Why are people so quick to overlook that fact? He won at the University of Vermont, he won as a minor leaguer, he won in Finland, and he won in the best league on the planet. He did it with a frenetic, scrambling style that stymied shooters as often as it stressed coaches and GMs. And he did it with his heart on his sleeve, a heart that drove him to reach levels that his physical gifts couldn’t reach alone.

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I always found myself cheering for goalies who overcame long odds, and did it with a pugnacious nature. New York Rangers Hall of Famer Eddie Giacomin was told to give up the sport as a youngster after he suffered serious burns in a kitchen accident (in the days of the Original Six, with only a half-dozen goalie spots in the entire NHL). Battlin’ Billy Smith, one of the original New York Islanders who also ended up in the Hall, endured brutal expansion seasons but hung tough to become the backbone of the four-time Stanley Cup champs.

Plus, what a lot of naysayers fail to appreciate about Thomas is that, despite the chaos that surrounds his net, the puck rarely winds up in it. Does Thomas give up some bad goals? No question. In fact, he’s given up some brutal tallies as recently as the Montreal series this past spring. When he did, Thomas’s critics were quick to pounce. And, just like he’s done all his life, Thomas shut them up, not with barbed retorts or snarky Twitter postings, but with his play between the pipes.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the hockey press was effusive in its praise of Thomas. NHL goalies Marty Turco and Kevin Weekes raved about his playoff performance. The following nugget, by my friend James Murphy of ESPNBoston, captures Thomas, and his 2010-11 season succinctly and fittingly.

“What Thomas was able to accomplish this past season after having offseason hip surgery and being peddled around the trade rumor circuit is simply amazing,” wrote Murphy in his season recap, in which he gave Thomas an A-plus grade. “Always one to thrive off adversity, Thomas persevered again and this time his perseverance rubbed off on his teammates, who took on the identity of one of the most resilient teams in recent memory.”

Watching Thomas hoist the Stanley Cup, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, was indeed one of the most satisfying things I’ve witnessed in my 45 years of hockey. His second Vezina Trophy, which he received a week later in Las Vegas, was sweet frosting on the cake. Oh, and did I mention his two ESPYs for Best NHL Player and Best Championship Performance?

Murphy chose the word “perseverance,” but I prefer “desire.” Thomas, through sheer heart and determination, willed himself into an NHL-caliber goaltender and a Stanley Cup champion. He did it with a steely resolve that overcame incredible odds, constant rejection and career-threatening hip surgery (which, I have to add, he never once used as an excuse!).

That’s how he plays the game. The key to Thomas’s performance lies in his passion. He is a relentless competitor who simply doesn’t quit. Ever. Many aspiring goaltenders think they have that trait, but it’s rare. And it’s almost impossible to teach.

This past month, while coaching at Merrimack College, I watched a young Casey DeSmith, who is heading to the University of New Hampshire, make a near-impossible save during our “game time.” These end-of-practice contests pit shooters against goalies, usually 4-on-4, with no defense. Shooters can fire away at any net. Left stranded by a cross-ice pass, with a shooter looking at a wide-open net, DeSmith dug in and flew across the net, blocking the shot.

“That was a heck of a save,” I told DeSmith.

“It was lucky,” he replied, smiling.

“No, it wasn’t,” I said, “You might have been lucky to get a piece of it, but there was nothing lucky at all about the effort. Nine goalies out of 10 wouldn’t have done that. Tim Thomas would be proud.”

DeSmith just laughed. He probably had no idea that, in my book, there’s no greater compliment.

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

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction. Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com. He can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com