Thomas: The American Wall

Modern-day Johnny Bower is peaking when many goalies retire

09.06.2011
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Tim Thomas makes a save during the 2008 IIHF World Championship in Halifax. Photo: Jukka Rautio HHOF / IIHF Images

BOSTON – Goalie Tim Thomas has not only carried the Boston Bruins to the Stanley Cup finals, he has done so at the age of 37 with only five full NHL seasons under his belt. Just like his former USA Hockey teammate Brian Rafalski, Thomas took the route to prominence via Europe.

How did Thomas do it? How did he get here? How has he not yet won the Bill Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey”?

More incredibly, he is the second-oldest player in the Stanley Cup finals after teammate Mark Recchi and the only player in the finals who was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques, nearly 20 years ago.

His story assumes almost mythical proportions with every new Stanley Cup game. After Wednesday’s 4-0 win against Vancouver, Thomas’ Bruins are two wins away from the club’s first Cup win in 39 years and Thomas leads all playoff goaltenders in every relevant category. (See footnote).

In the beginning, Thomas played four years of college hockey with the University of Vermont. After an outstanding freshman season, 1993-94, he was drafted a lowly 217th overall in the 1994 Entry Draft by the Quebec Nordiques.

Such a low selection, for a goalie to boot, was not a good sign for Thomas. Nonetheless, he had an excellent career at the U of V, earning more than his share of accolades and awards in ECAC play. Incredibly, one of his teammates was Martin St. Louis, another late bloomer who went undrafted in the NHL and had to fight tooth and nail for every opportunity he ever had.

Thomas graduated in 1997, and in the meantime the Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche. But the Nordiques/Avs never signed him, and he became a free agent. In 1997-98, with his college eligibility expired, he turned pro, signing with the Birmingham Bulls of the ECHL.

It didn’t take. He moved on, played a single game with the Houston Aeros of the IHL, and then packed his bags and moved to Europe, finishing the season with IFK Helsinki of the Finnish SM-Liiga.

Thomas was nothing short of sensational in Finland, putting together a 13-1-4 record (W-T-L) and a GAA of 1.62. In the playoffs, he was 9-0 and led the team to the Finnish championship. The 1998 victory would be IFK’s last national trophy before they won it 13 years later, this last spring.

His efforts didn’t go unnoticed. The Edmonton Oilers signed him in the summer and assigned him to Hamilton of the AHL for the next season, but after only a few games he made his way back to Finland, this time taking IFK to the championship series before losing to TPS Turku.

Thomas devoted all of 1999-2000 to playing with Detroit in the IHL, but he had a mediocre season, got no new NHL offers, and ended up signing with AIK Stockholm in the Swedish Elite league the next summer. Unimpressed by his North American experiences to date, he stayed in Europe the next two years (2000-2002) first with AIK and then back in Finland with Kärpät Oulu.

Life seemed to take an upturn when the Boston Bruins signed him in 2002, but looks can be deceiving. He did, indeed, play four games for the Bruins in 2002-03, winning three, but he played virtually all of the next two years with Providence, in the AHL.

Again, for a fifth time Thomas went overseas, playing 2004-05 (the NHL’s lockout season) with Jokerit, another Helsinki team, setting a league record with 15 shutouts in 54 games.

In 2005, the Bruins signed him again, and fortune finally smiled on him. The Bruins had him third on their depth chart and assigned him once again to Providence, but Andrew Raycroft and Finn Hannu Toivonen suffered injuries and Thomas was recalled. He was sensational, more or less playing his way into the number-once goalie’s position.

Indeed, the Bruins traded Raycroft in the off-season and then signed Thomas to a three-year contract. When Toivonen got off to a rough start in 2006-07, Thomas took over. The next year, the Bruins traded Toivonen but acquired Manny Fernandez, who was made the number-one goalie, but when Fernandez faltered, Thomas was there again.

Finally the Bruins realized their best goalie was the one right in front of them, and Thomas has had the bulk of playing time in the last few years.

In 2008-09, he won the Vezina Trophy as well as the William Jennings Trophy (with Fernandez) after which he signed a four-year contract extension with the Bruins.

During his European years Thomas played for the U.S. at the IIHF World Championship on five occasions, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2005. As often happens, USA Hockey will name one or two players from Europe to the team because there is no extra travel involved and it’s a good experience for the players.

But during these five World events, Thomas only played in four games, a clear indication that he was considered a lesser goalie at the time. The list of goalies who consistently beat Thomas to the starting job includes Parris Duffus (both in 1996 and 1999), Pat Jablonski (1995) and Garth Snow (1998). Duffus played in one (1) NHL game during his career. All three are retired.

With his newfound fame, he was named to the U.S. team again in 2008 as well as to the 2010 Olympic team. But also during this time as a recognized NHLer, Thomas never managed to get the starting job.

During the 2008 Worlds in Canada, he played in three games but Robert Esche was USA’s go-to guy. In the Vancouver Olympics, of course, Ryan Miller was the man. Thomas nevertheless saw his first and so far only 11 minutes and 31 seconds of Olympic action when Miller was given a rest at the very end of the lopsided semifinal against Finland (6-0 after the first period).

Nonetheless, Tim Thomas is the modern Johnny Bower. Nicknamed the China Wall (because, teammates joked, he was as old), Bower played one year in the NHL during the first 13 years of his career, spending the other 12 in the AHL. He was 34 when Toronto coach Punch Imlach made him the Leafs’ starting goalie, and he played 12 more years in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup four times with Toronto.

Thomas is the modern-day equivalent. He played eight years before getting a decent chance at the NHL, and he developed in Europe more successfully than any North American goalie in the history of the game (like another great American player who just retired, defenceman Brian Rafalski).

Thomas became a great goalie in Europe, and he displayed remarkable determination in getting to the highest level of the NHL, which is where he’s at today, at the age of 37. His career has been anything but a straight line, but its curves and nuances are what make him such an interesting person and one so easily admired.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

FOOTNOTE: So far in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Thomas has played in each and every one of Boston’s 22 games so far. He leads all playoffs goaltenders in save percentage (.936), goals against average (2.11), shutouts (3) and wins (14). Game 5 is in Vancouver on Friday. He is currently the frontrunner to receive the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP).

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