Here’s another article lost to cyberspace when HockeyJournal.com went to a different format in 2007. Luckily, it lives on in the archives, and it’s an interesting exercise to go back and look at Tim Thomas in his first Bruins training camp and preseason nearly 19 years ago. Who knew how good he would end up being? Well, if you were paying attention to the early results, the signs were there. Enjoy. -KL
How Tim Thomas looked when he first arrived in Boston as a free agent in 2001
Teaser: When the Boston Bruins released their 2001 Training Camp roster, goaltender Tim Thomas’ name met with very little response from the fans. Thomas, a former standout at the University of Vermont, has taken a most diverse road in his quest to stop pucks at the NHL-level, and one thing you quickly realize about the Michigan native is that he is a survivor. His experiences playing hockey in North America and in Europe, playing hockey at some of the highest levels, have given Thomas a unique perspective that very few major league goaltenders can even begin to comprehend. Join HockeyJournal.com’s Kirk Luedeke, who talked to Boston’s travelin’ man about the differences of playing at home and abroad, his childhood heroes and where his impressive preseason performance in net for the Bruins could take him.
In the mid-nineties, Michigan native Tim Thomas was an outstanding goaltender and All-American from the University of Vermont. After his stellar career with the Catamounts wrapped up, Thomas turned pro, but the one-time Quebec Nordiques draft choice seemed to get lost in the shuffle and dropped off most North American hockey radars.
Four years and five different professional leagues later, Thomas, 27, is making a serious run at the backup duties on the Boston Bruins, impressing spectators with the kind of veteran poise you would expect of someone who has seen significant ice time in the National Hockey League. The only problem with that assertion is that Thomas has never played a single minute in the NHL. You’d never guess that by watching him, however.
In camp, Thomas was virtually unbeatable in scrimmages and during the club’s annual Black and White game played at Ristuccia Memorial Arena in Wilmington. Then, when the team went 2-0 to start the 2001 exhibition season in Detroit and Montreal, Thomas played nearly 60 minutes (58:55) in both contests, giving up just one score while facing 34 shots on net.
“I had two pretty good showings (in Detroit and Montreal), I suppose,” Thomas told HockeyJournal.com in what appears to be a real talent for understatement.
Thomas’ performance has arguably been the most impressive of any Bruin at camp this year, coming out of nowhere to make a name for himself despite a lack of fanfare. In fact, even his number would seem to indicate that the team had little confidence that Thomas would be able to stick, assigning him decidedly un-goalie-like number 70.
“That’s the number they gave me,” said Thomas, who wore number 32 in college and is also partial to number 37. “Both of those numbers were taken, so I just kind of went with it. So far, the number 70 has been working out for me, so I’m not in any hurry to change it.”
In fact, Bruins goalie Matt Delguidice was the last Bruin netminder to wear those digits in a regular season game when he appeared in a few short minutes of relief during the 1990-91 season (he later switched to 33), but Thomas hopes he can successfully bring 70 back from hiatus. If his play thus far is any indication, he’s well on his way.
“It’s gone pretty well for me, but the guys who’ve been playing in front of me deserve most of the credit,” he said. “It has been one of those things where you’re getting the kind of defense that allows you to see the shots and then do what a goaltender must do, and that’s stop the puck.”
Thomas turned pro in 1997-98, and spent time in the ECHL, IHL and even went over to Finland’s Elite League with HIFK Helsinki, where he was a stellar 13-4-1 with a 1.64 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage in 18 games. Since then, he has played for the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, the Detroit Vipers, and most recently, AIK Solna in the Swedish Elite League last year, where he posted a very solid 2.48 GAA in 43 games against some of the best skaters that country has to offer. Thomas’ extensive travels throughout hockey cities in North America and Europe, have given him a perspective that few can appreciate.
“It has been unique seeing it all,” said Thomas on the various leagues and talent levels he’s been exposed to in his professional career. “The AHL and IHL were two very different leagues. The IHL had older, more experienced players and most teams in the ‘I’ played a defense-oriented style. It was pretty much dump-in, dump-out, and if you were watching it from the bench, it could get quite boring.
“The AHL featured younger, more skilled players, and I think the hockey there was definitely more offense-based. I’m not saying the defense was bad, but because the guys were younger, I think the game was much more free-flowing in the AHL and that probably had a lot to do with the fact that overall, the players on both the offense and defense were younger than the guys in the IHL.”
Thomas found the bigger ice surface in Europe to be both a hindrance and a help for obvious reasons. “In Sweden and Finland, the size of the ice surface makes a difference,” he said. “That extra second of time and space gives the players over there the kind of room to create and make things happen, and they always use that extra time. As a goaltender, you have to really be able to see the play develop and react to it quicker because the skaters are skilled and have more room to make plays.”
For a goaltender like Thomas, who isn’t much of a puckhandler, the larger ice surface gave him more time play the puck behind the net, something he doesn’t get in North America with the smaller rinks and skill players. “I only really like to play the puck when forced. Even at UVM, we had a bigger surface than most, so after competing in Europe, I’ve had to get used to having less time when I leave the net. I’ve talked to Coach (Robbie) Ftorek about this, and I realize that I have to improve my play with the puck.”
Thomas grew up in Michigan, but his idols on the ice weren’t the traditional Detroit Red Wings players that one would immediately assume he would look up to. Instead, Thomas emulated his goaltending heroes on the Flint Generals (IHL), Steve Penney and Rick Knickle, who at 37, became the oldest player to ever debut in the NHL when he came up for a cup of coffee with the L.A. Kings in 1992-93. As for Penney, Bruins fans who remember the 1983-84 postseason no doubt curse his name whenever they hear it. Penney was Montreal’s rookie netminder who stunned a high-powered Bruins squad in a major upset, yet never achieved much success in the NHL after that.
` “I had no idea about Penney beating Boston,” said Thomas. “But then again, I always paid more attention to the IHL. Ray Leblanc (1992 U.S. Olympic Team) is another goalie I remember following when I was younger. When he played, he was a pure butterfly goalie despite the fact that he wasn’t all that big of a guy. I also watched Eddie Belfour coming up when he played for Flint’s big rivals in Saginaw.”
Thomas is quick to point out that while he watches a lot of goaltenders, he doesn’t copy their styles, preferring to adopt his own system of what works best in game situations.
“I think the tendency for a lot of young kids nowadays is to copy their favorite goaltender,” he said. “I’ve never been one to copy others, because I think you have to find your own style. I may do something that someone else does, like dropping my stick to cover the puck with my blocker glove the way (Dominik) Hasek does, but that’s because its an effective technique that works for me in certain situations. I won’t just try to play like somebody else though, because I have to find my own way.”
Thomas indeed has been forced to find his own way. The kind of way that has taken him through a host of pro leagues on two different continents. Many people, including Thomas, say that his varied experiences of seeing so many different players and styles will undoubtedly help him reach his ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. He realizes that the while differences and subtleties that he picks up from watching skaters of different nationalities and the way they interact on the ice will likely help him in the long run, he must focus on the present and by continuing to play at such a high level, he’s opening eyes in Boston.
Thomas’ road to a potential roster spot on the Boston Bruins has been quite unusual in the making, but the young goalie is nonplussed. “It seems I have a taste for the unorthodox,” he said.
His travels in pro hockey until now have been quite unorthodox, but as long as he keeps stopping pucks as well as he’s been able to since donning the Black and Gold, there’s a good chance that nobody else in Boston will care how he goes about it.
Tim Thomas USHHOF induction speech:
NHL video of Thomas’ top-10 saves