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March 6, 2014
by Michael Menser Dell, Editor-in-Chief
Sure, it took Martin Brodeur bailing on the game for the NHL to come to its senses and name him to the Eastern squad, but Thomas earned his spot among hockey's elite. The Boston Bruins netminder has gone 16-11-3 over the first half, posting a superb 2.34 goals-against and a league-best .928 save percentage. Timmy!
"Last summer, I did set a goal for myself to make the All-Star Game," said Thomas in a recent media conference call. "I mean, it wasn't like a goal coming into the season. It's like you make a list of goals that you shoot for. You might not get 'em, but that's one thing that I made in my mental list of goals. I mean, I can't believe that it actually bore through, but just hearing them announce me, 'Tim has been elected to the 2008 All-Star Game,' it's funny even hearing it to my ears."
Thomas' All-Star season is all the more remarkable considering his long and winding road to stardom. The 33-year-old native of Flint, Michigan, who enjoyed modest fame as the lead singer of "Timmy and the Lords of the Underworld," played collegiate hockey at the University of Vermont, becoming a two-time All-American with the Catamounts. The Quebec Nordiques actually selected him in the ninth round of the 1994 Draft, but Thomas, who had just completed his freshman year, wanted to finish his college education and never signed with the club, possibly missing out on the opportunity to back up Patrick Roy and win a couple Stanley Cups. But there are no regrets.
"I've been fortunate to have had quite a few fun years as a pro and as a college player," said Thomas. "But those times in college were definitely special, especially with Marty St. Louis and Eric Perrin. They are two of the greatest players and greatest people I've ever played with.
"It should be really fun being back on the same side as Marty, even if it's only for an All-Star Game. We played against each other recently in the past few years, and that's an interesting thing because that means we all accomplished what we were trying to accomplish in college. Although Marty took a hard route to the NHL, also, and Eric an even harder route than Marty. So not this year, but last year when I played against Tampa, there was the first time that me, Marty, and Eric had been on the ice since college, and that was a special game. They both scored on me. Then I won in a shootout. We all got something out of it."
Upon graduating Vermont in 1997, Thomas played a grand total of seven games with the Birmingham Bulls of the ECHL and the Houston Aeros of the IHL before signing with HIFK in Finland. The Helsinki weather seemed to agree with him, as he went 13-4-1 with a 1.62 goals-against and an even more ridiculous .947 save percentage to lead HIFK to the Finnish championship. Timmy!
The success earned the attention of NHL general managers, and the Edmonton Oilers were able to lure him back to North America. Thomas came in determined to earn the starting job with the Bubbling Crude, but things didn't exactly work out the way he planned. Beginning the season in Hamilton (AHL) had Thomas pining for Finland.
"I had a great camp," remembered Thomas. "I think I was knocking on the doorstep then. . . . When I got sent down, I think I expected to play a lot in Hamilton right off the bat in the AHL. Steve Passmore was there, also, and I put all the blame on myself. I think I was a little bit immature at the time, and I just expected the No. 1 job in the NHL to be given to me, and I had a hard time dealing with it when Steve Passmore played the majority of the games. But now looking back, he deserved to; he was playing better. He had a great year.
"Now as a more mature person, I can appreciate when other goalies play good, but back when I was 23, I don't think I could deal with it. So out of the first, like, 53 games, I had only played 12. I had only started like eight of them.
"So what happened was I made the decision to go back to Finland, and it was my decision, and actually, I think Glen Sather was the GM at the time, he said that he would let me go. It wasn't anything that anybody in the Edmonton organization did to me. It was just a career decision that I made at the time. I guess it ended up working out in the long run, but it took a long time."
Thomas returned to HIFK for the 1998-99 season, losing to TPS in the league finals. In 1999-00, it was back to North America, as he played 36 rather forgettable games with the IHL's Detroit Vipers. It was starting to look like Thomas was meant to be a European pro. He'd spend the next two years in Finland, playing one season for AIK and the other for Karpat, before the Boston Bruins offered him a contract. Thomas decided to give his dream one more chance. Timmy!
He made his NHL debut on October 19, 2002, stopping 31 shots to beat the Oilers 4-3 in Edmonton. But Jeff Hackett and Steve Shields had nailed down the top two spots, limiting Thomas to only three more starts the rest of the year. He played the entire 2003-04 season in Providence (AHL), unable to steal even a single minute from the tandem of Andrew Raycroft and Felix Potvin.
When the lockout hit in 2004-05, Thomas felt his NHL dream was dead. He put dimes on its eyes. He buried it. That meant it was back to Finland, signing a contract with Jokerit. Seemingly drawing strength from the Scandinavian air, Thomas had a season for the ages, leading the league with a .946 save percentage and establishing a new record for shutouts with 15. Despite losing in the finals to Karpat, Thomas won the prestigious Lasse Oksanen Trophy, awarded to the league's best player, and the Kultainen kypara, which is the Finnish equivalent of the Lester Pearson. Timmy!
Thomas' efforts didn't go unnoticed. Once the lockout ended, the Bruins came calling again, inviting him back to the organization. Thomas had already signed another deal with Jokerit, but the contract allowed him to leave for an NHL gig. After much deliberation, Thomas decided to give it one more go, leaving Finland on the eve of Jokerit's season.
"I always believed I had the talent to play in the NHL and to play at a high level in the NHL, but at points in my career, like the last time that I was in Finland, I actually pretty much made peace with the fact that it was never going to happen," admitted Thomas. "And then I did get the opportunity to sign back with Boston, and this is in the year after the lockout. I was already over in Finland playing at the beginning of September, and Boston approached me about signing a contract. It was a really difficult decision for me to actually take that chance and come back to the NHL, because I had made that peace that I was never going to get that chance in the NHL. And I had a good setup in Finland with the team and a place that I really enjoyed playing and a team that really appreciated me.
"I was talked into taking the chance basically by my agent and wife, and also other parts of my family. My parents wanted me back in the States, in the U.S., just because that's where they felt I belonged. So I took the chance."
It paid off. Thomas proved to be a legit NHLer in 2005-06, leading the Bruins with 12 wins and a .917 save percentage. He followed that with 30 wins last year, emerging as Boston's No. 1 netminder when Hannu Toivonen tanked. But Thomas didn't take anything for granted heading into the off-season.
"You can never get comfortable," said Thomas. "You can never relax in this game. Just like in the summertime, if you don't work harder than everybody else, then there's going to be some young kid who is going to outwork you and get better than you. If you don't keep trying to get better, no matter what your age, you're going to get passed by. Unless you're one of those rare talents that has so much talent that you can afford to; that hasn't been the story of my career. I've had to battle every year, and I think every new challenge -- I've been through enough challenges, though, to where I'm not afraid of a challenge."
Most hockey experts, including this humble scribe, pegged Thomas as a career backup, a competitive, scrappy guy who could steal points but was completely incapable of carrying the workload for 82 games. Believing they still needed to solidify the position, the Bruins brought in Manny Fernandez to compete for the starting job.
"I didn't even really think twice about it," said Thomas. "They are just trying to do what they thought was going to help the team as best they could, but my job as an individual and as part of the organization was to work as hard as I could in the summer and try to bring myself in the season to be able to play as well as I could. And it didn't matter who the other goalie was, whether it was somebody I played with last year or whether it was a new guy; as long as I was given the chance to compete and the chance to play, then that's fine by me."
Fernandez has been a complete bust in Beantown, appearing in only four games before undergoing season-ending knee surgery. Meanwhile, Thomas has made the most of his opportunity, posting a save percentage of at least .929 in 21 of his 31 starts. He's a legitimate All-Star, deserving of recognition for not only his play but his perseverance. But his career odyssey hasn't been easy.
"I personally always thought that I was a goalie, and actually I was helped out in my belief in myself by my agent, Bill Zito, who always believed that I should be in the NHL," said Thomas. "It's not only, 'You'll be in the NHL. You'll be in the NHL,' but he said, 'you'll be in the NHL and you'll be one of the better goaltenders, too.' This is back when I couldn't find an AHL job, let alone an NHL job.
"Also, my wife standing by me, she's always had the belief that I could do it and having -- surrounding yourself with people that believe in you, also, it makes it easier to believe in yourself."
Thomas' improbable success story has others believing in themselves, too, serving as an inspiration to anyone who's struggled making it to the NHL. Thomas has kept more hopes alive than Viagra. Timmy!
"I recall a game last year, I saw Mike Mottau after the game," said Thomas. "He's playing for New Jersey now, and I had played with him at USA Hockey when we were younger, world championships or something, and it had taken him a long time, and he had some injury setbacks and stuff like that. He said to me after a game we played last year, 'You know, it's great, I look at a guy like you and I tell myself, keep working, there's still a chance.' And I didn't think much of it at the time until he got the chance of his career, and he's doing quite well for himself. So I have heard it before, and sometimes it just makes me feel awkward, because you don't want to be -- I didn't set out to be an example. I was just trying to do the best I could."
And Thomas' best has been good enough to earn his first trip to the All-Star Game. It's an experience he's going to share with his whole family, even though he had promised his seven-year-old daughter a shopping trip to New York over the All-Star Break.
"She wasn't a tough sell," said Thomas. "I said, 'Are you disappointed we're not going to New York City?' She said, 'No, we're going someplace better.' We sold her on the fact that Atlanta has a great aquarium, I've heard from somebody that worked in the Boston organization for years, Video Joe, that Atlanta has a great aquarium. So that's a big sell to get her to be happier with going to Atlanta. So far, it's worked."
Kick-ass aquarium or not, the trip to Atlanta will certainly be a memorable, especially at this stage of his career.
"Yeah, I think it will be special no matter what the age," said Thomas. "But being older and the path that I took to get here, I think I'm going to try to soak it all in and appreciate it. I think just making the NHL when you're 30 brings an appreciation to just that accomplishment more than it might have to the younger kid. I think it will be the same thing with an All-Star Game."
Yes, sir, Thomas has proven more than handicapable. Finland's loss has been the NHL's gain.