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The road to glory isn’t always paved in gold, and for Bruins’ goaltender Tim Thomas it most certainly was not. Thomas, a native of Flint, Michigan, grew up in a blue-collar family who understood that opportunity often shows up disguised as hard work.
Selling their wedding rings just so their son could attend goalie camp, Thomas’ parents always had faith in their boy and always supported him. It’s that family base that helped Thomas endure hardships and overcome every obstacle until he finally accomplished his ultimate goal, getting his name forever engraved on the holy grail of hockey; the Stanley Cup.
The 37-year old netminder took to the ice for the University of Vermont, the ECHL, the IHL, in Finland, Sweden, in the AHL and finally the NHL. He didn’t become a full-time NHL goalie until he was 31 years young.
Questioned and underestimated by many along the way, Thomas had finally quieted some of the skeptics when he was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender for his outstanding performance during the 2008-2009 season.
A poor campaign the next year on account of injuries, forced everyone to once again start doubting Thomas. After offseason hip surgery, Thomas, who was entering the 2011-2012 season at 36, was hearing his name swirling around in trade talks. The Bruins front office and fan base was ready to start the Tuukka Rask era and Thomas’ contract would have handcuffed the B’s from making moves with the salary cap.
Thomas yet again proved to all those lacking faith that he wasn’t going anywhere. He started strong and continued on with an incredible regular season, playing in 57 games in which he won 35, nine of them shutouts. His .938 save percentage was the best in NHL history since the statistic began being recorded back in 1983. His body of work in the over the entire regular season was also good enough to once again earn him a nomination for the Vezina Trophy.
Finally, Thomas was being recognized as an elite goaltender, but there were still those who weren’t sold on him as a big game playoff goalie. Admittedly, I was one of them. It was yet to be seen if Thomas could steal you a game in the postseason. Coming off back to back seasons where the Bruins were sent packing because he couldn’t get it done in a Game 7, the question was a feasible one. He was good, but the great ones could do it in crunch time.
This time, Timmy left no room for doubt, proving that he was and is certainly capable of winning when it matters. He put together arguably the most incredible playoff run by a goalie in league history.
His 43-year old teammate, who has seen it all throughout his 21-year professional career, was amazed by the performance from the man behind the mask:
“I don’t think I’ve seen goaltending like that… ever. I don’t know if we’ll ever see something that special again.”
During this postseason Thomas set records for most saves in the playoffs, stopping 798 shots, most saves in a Stanley Cup Final with 238 and most shots faced in the playoffs with 849. Thomas was also the first goalie to record a shutout in a Game 7 on the road in the championship series and is the oldest player to win the Conn Smythe award for playoff MVP.
As the Bruins advanced through the playoffs Timmy’s efforts kept improving. Just when you thought he couldn’t get better, he did. He had all of his four shutouts in the final two championship series and recorded a shutout in Game 7 in both the Eastern Conference Championship series and the Stanley Cup Final.
After making one of the most incredible saves in hockey history to rob Steve Downie of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals, he put together a God-like effort in the final series. Thomas had a .967 save percentage and 1.15 goals against average on the grandest stage. He allowed only eight goals in the seven games against one of the NHL’s best offenses. His counterpart in the finals, Roberto Luongo, criticized Thomas for his unusual aggressive style, but gave up eight goals in Game 3 alone. That’s just another example of Thomas silencing the naysayers.
“You can never imagine a goalie playing that well in seven games,” Neely said. “Prior to this series he played extremely well, but this series alone he just picked up his game and it’s hard to really see how a guy can play the way he did. But he did it.”
Teammate and Bruins alternate captain Patrice Bergeron said this of his netminder’s remarkable run:
“He’s going to win the Vezina. He won the Conn Smythe and now he’s got that Cup. With everything he’s been through, and the character that he’s shown it’s about the whole team but that’s why we won.”
Bruins coach Claude Julien, who runs a very defensive system was very pleased with his goaltenders performance:
“Tim Thomas in these playoffs just totally dominated,” Julien said. “That’s a sign of a great goaltender. He was on top of his game from start to finish, and especially in this final round. He was outstanding every game. I know everybody expected him to have an average game at some point. It never came. He was in the zone, focused, never let anything rattle him and never questioned his style of play. What’s happened to him right now is so deserving and I’m so proud of him, and obviously the rest of the team.”
Julien is right, there is no one else deserves to be on top more than Tim Thomas. He’s the example of endurance. He’s the picture of perseverance. He’s the definition of determination and he’s illustration of intrepidity.
He’s become the most decorated goaltender in Boston Bruins history and with all due respect to Gerry Cheevers, it’s reasonable to call him greatest that this franchise has ever had between the pipes.
Opportunity did knock on Thomas’ door and as expected it was hidden in hard work, but with a dedicated and consistent effort he eventually battled and opened the door to it.
In the 2004 film Miracle, Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) said, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.” Tim Thomas gave himself a great opportunity to become a true champion on and off the ice and with that opportunity he gave us all innumerable great moments.
Champions aren’t born, they’re built and Timothy James Thomas Jr. has been built like a champion.
Follow Brian Moller on Twitter: @Brian_Moller