Throwback Thursday: Tim Thomas interview circa 2001

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

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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.

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            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.

            Until now.

            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

On Rick Middleton’s No. 16 going to the rafters

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The Boston Bruins announced Tuesday that Richard D. Middleton aka Rick Middleton aka ‘Nifty’ the right wing who starred for the team from 1976-88, will have his number 16 retired in a game later this November (29th- vs the NY Islanders). The longtime New Hampshire resident and Bruins Alumni fixture is deeply touched by the gesture, which comes three decades after he skated off into the sunset (more on that later).

The former Oshawa Generals star broke into the NHL with the NY Rangers, who selected him in the 1st round, 14th overall, in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. Middleton was also picked by the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the rival WHA that same year, going in the second round, 21st overall.

The trade is right up there with Cam Neely as one of former Bruins GM Harry Sinden’s best heists, sending the over-the-hill Ken Hodge to Broadway for the 22-year-old, who put up 90 points in two seasons with the Rangers. The catalyst for the deal was believed to be Phil Esposito, who was dealt to the Rangers the season before in a blockbuster, which sent Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to the B’s. Espo wanted his old (no pun intended) reliable right wing back, and Middleton was rumored to be a bit of a wild card off the ice…his -38 in 1975-76 certainly didn’t help.

So, Middleton headed off the Boston and after a couple of solid, if unspectacular years (by the standards of the 1970’s), he took off, posting 38, 40, 44, and 51-goal seasons from 1978-82. He peaked in 1984 with a 47-goal, 105-point year (finishing second to Barry Pederson’s 116 points) but the Boston offensive juggernaut was silenced in the opening round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens and Steve Penney, who sent them out with a whimper in 3 games (no points for Nifty). The year before, Middleton had posted a playoff season for the ages (33 points in 17 games), leading the Bruins past two rounds of the playoffs including the memorable 7-game affair against Buffalo where he registered a team-record (for one series) 19 points. Unfortunately, the B’s ran into the NY Islanders dynasty in the spring of 1983. Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith & Company dispatched them from the Wales Conference final in a series that never seemed that close, en route to a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, leaving so many B’s fans to wonder…what if?

Middleton’s production steadily declined after that career 105-point campaign, due in part to age and injury, but he did preside over the historic defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in 1988, a first for any Bruins team since 1943. Middleton’s breakaway game-winner in Game 3 (2-0), to put the B’s up 2-1 in the series after splitting the games in Montreal was a fitting coda for a man who had been a part of so many heart-breaking losses to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge during his entire Bruins tenure. He split the captaincy with Ray Bourque that year, wearing the ‘C’ for home games, until his retirement after the B’s were swept by Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (their 4th NHL title since 1984) giving way to Bourque’s sole leadership from 1988 until his trade to Colorado in the spring of 2000.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, Nifty was an ubiquitous presence in my budding love of hockey and the Bruins. Although not a pure burner, his golden locks (later shiny pate as his hair thinned and ultimately gave way to a Jofa helmet late in his career) looked like they were on fire as he would bob and weave through the neutral and offensive zones, often putting on a display of stickhandling prowess at impossible angles and contortions, ending with pucks in the back of the net or sublime back-door feeds for gift-wrapped tap-ins for his lucky linemates. The Mike Krushelnyski-Pederson-Middleton line racked up 111 goals in 1983-84…a number that seems awe-inspiring some 35 years later.

Although Middleton’s scoring numbers paled in comparison to Gretzky’s (The Great One scored 100 more points than Middleton’s 105 in 83-84 just for perspective), or Mario Lemieux or Bossy to name a few, he was a veritable King Midas for the B’s, creating magic from the mundane and turning pucks into goals. But don’t take my word for it- Channel 38 once paid tribute to him with a highlight reel video now on YouTube to America’s “You Can Do Magic” and I had it recorded on VHS and must’ve watched it 1000 times…

Ignored by the Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 years after he retired, taking his number out of circulation is a welcome move for those who watched him (and maybe a good percentage of fans who didn’t, but who appreciate history). Sure- there are some who may be opposed to the honor (it is the 11th so number retired by the B’s) but that’s just a curmudgeonly nature of New Englanders at work- deep down, even the grumblers get it. After all- we’ve seen Peter Douris, Jozef Stumpel, Randy Robitaille, Ken Belanger, Marco Sturm and most recently, Kaspars Daugavins (in 2012-13), wear the digits in the intervening years. None hold the distinction and cachet Middleton did, and in the end- it’s just a number. It’s time to admit that he wore it well…better than anyone in the Black and Gold. As his 402 goals as a Bruin can attest, he could finish plays off just as easily as he set the table, and was the heir to Espo as the next pure scoring forward to put on the spoked B.

If the Bruins can take the time to honor for a player who grew up and matured in Boston as a model of consistency and was the face of the franchise at least up front for the better part of a decade, then why not?

It’s about time.