Brad Marchand is the team’s top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)
(This is a re-worked and updated story done for the New England Hockey Journal in 2011- KL)
If ever there was a year that altered an NHL franchise’s destiny, 2006 was the pivotal one for the Boston Bruins as we look back nearly a decade-and-a-half later.
As the calendar flipped over to January 2006, the post-lockout campaign was a disaster.
Already, the team traded its captain and 1997 first overall pick Joe Thornton. Soon, it would fire GM Mike O’Connell and head coach Mike Sullivan. The B’s finished out of the playoffs with the fifth-worst record. Free agent signings supposed to help put the B’s in contention like Alexei Zhamnov and Dave Scatchard were complete busts, with a grand total of 40 games and five goals in Boston between them.
The franchise had stumbled badly in a decade since the bottoming-out of 1997 that had netted Thornton and Sergei Samsonov. That new era that began with so much promise when the latter took NHL Rookie of the Year honors and the late Pat Burns helped lead the B’s back to the postseason in 1998 was about to be officially done when Samsonov was dealt to Edmonton at the trade deadline in a few weeks. Although few realized it in 2006, a series of critical trades, hires, signings and events paved the way for Boston to become a championship city once again.
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.
It may or may not have gone exactly the way the Boston Bruins public and media relations staff drew it up, but last night’s 2011 Stanley Cup team reunion on Zoom broadcast with Game 7 on NESN was high entertainment for those who got a chance to see it, even if the humor was narrowly focused on the B’s fanbase.
I mean, take 20 players, some still in the NHL as players and coaching staff, others out of the NHL but still involved in the game, and a few more retired and out of hockey, add wine, beer or other more potent libations of choice, quarantine during a global pandemic and then have them re-live one of the greatest games of their lives via virtual conferencing technology. What could possibly go wrong, right?
From a fan perspective, the event was gold, and it is one more example of the modern information age opening the door for the public getting to see a side of hockey players and the culture that they are rarely able…or authorized to. It was unfiltered, uncensored and unbelievable- just 20 guys watching what was for most of them, the finest moment of their careers, distilled to one decisive, crystalline 60-minute victory on the road to cap an improbable comeback of a dream season.
Championship teams win because when they go to battle on ice, they fight for each other. The NHL’s playoffs- more than two months of grueling, grinding, grappling to climb the summit and raise the Stanley Cup overhead in the middle of June- is a war of attrition that requires such excellence in performance but also unmatched, singular dedication to each and every one involved in reaching that goal. A lesser team would not have survived a pair of 0-2 holes in two of four playoff series that year. A dysfunctional group would have crumbled under the pressure of a 0-0 Game 7 against the toughest out of a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that posed a bad matchup for the B’s. In 2011, the Bruins dared us all to believe in them, and then they delivered.
Last night, fans got a firsthand look at why that team was special.
Milan Lucic held court for much of it, reminding us about why he was such a fan favorite in his Bruins days. Yes, his NHL career after being traded away in the summer of 2015 has gone the wrong way, but in 2011, he was at the height of prominence, winning another hockey championship in his home city of Vancouver, just as he did in 2007 as a member of the Memorial Cup-winning Giants of the WHL.
It was good to see Tim Thomas back with his teammates again. His Bruins tenure didn’t end well, and the open wounds on both sides of that departure had been allowed to fester in the intervening years. That is, until a few months back, when Thomas came back home, reluctantly told his story, and the vast majority of those who had felt rejected by his aloofness and distance, embraced him once more. His Vezina Trophy regular season and subsequent Conn Smythe spring of 2011 remains to this day arguably the greatest display of sustained excellence in goaltending the NHL has ever seen, and he deserves to celebrated, not criticized.
Current core Bruins Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask– comprising nearly a quarter of the roster that took home the championship nine years ago are still here. That in itself is a testament to their greatness to this franchise and that legacy will endure in Boston long after the last one of them plays his final game wearing a spoked-B. Many championship teams are all but scattered and gone just a few years later, but for these five to continue to represent this organization and produce the way they have nearly a decade later is proof of that 2011 team’s worthiness as champions.
We’ll stop there. After all, there were so many moments in the broadcast, so many myriad individual examples of why these players were able to accomplish what so many are unable to, but to do so would spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet. And hopefully, if you missed it, there will be other opportunities for it to be seen and enjoyed going forward. Sure, the language and some of the comments were not for a general audience, but what the players showed us was real and typical of how great teams achieve that greatness- out of pure love and respect for one another, and how such an experience bonds them together for life.
For so many Bruins fans, 2011 marked the end of 39 long years of frustration- of multiple Boston hockey clubs coming oh-so-close to a championship but ultimately falling short. Even after the win in 2011, Boston has returned to the close-but-no-cigar reality of 2013 and 2019. That’s why this team, a group of players known for its cohesiveness even before the playoffs began nine years ago, was the perfect salve for so much disappointment. They were the fourth of Boston’s major sports teams to win a championship after the New England Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, but for those who bleed Black and Gold, it was about saving the best for last.
For one night in April of 2020, with everything going on around the country and world, with the current NHL season hanging in the balance so trivial in the wake of the larger loss of life to a hideous virus, getting the band back together (minus a few- Nathan Horton and Tomas Kaberle who left early for a business-related call to duty), was exactly what the fans needed.
Reunions remind us of who we are, and that ultimately, we move on from groups and events and go on with our lives. Here’s to those who get it, and understand the power that such an event has against the backdrop of the hurting and uncertainty/disruption in their lives that so many are going through these days. Gratitude that they made it happen and we could see what that experience meant for the men who lived it.
As Lucic, so appropriately reminded us all at reunion’s end last night as he raised his wineglass: “This is a family we’ll have for the rest of our lives. So, I love you guys. Cheers.”