To say that Tim Thomas has taken the road less traveled to reach the pinnacle of the NHL would be a gross understatement. A more accurate assessment would be that his journey more aptly resembles a horse and buggy ride down a long and bumpy dirt road.
And now as he stands four wins away from the peak of the mountain, the Flint, Mich., native’s story serves as beacon of inspiration for anyone who has faced a similar journey.
Thomas began to encounter roadblocks on his path to the pros right out of high school. Despite a solid career at Davison High in suburban Flint, colleges steered clear, at least right away. That’s when he decided to take the Junior route with the now defunct Lakeland Jets of the North American Hockey League.
“I made that team as a third goalie — I won’t even get in to that,” he said.
No matter what, it turned out to be a good move as the next summer brought in offers from both the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Michigan Tech University. The only problem was that both schools already had a talented netminder occupying to top of the depth charts with Jamie Ram on the verge of a record-setting career at Michigan Tech and future NHL goaltender Dwayne Roloson learning the ropes at Lowell.
(As fate would have it, Thomas and Roloson hooked up in the Eastern Conference finals, with Thomas getting the upper hand in a seven-game series.)
Eventually, a third school came into the picture, the University of Vermont.
“They [Vermont] were the only school at the time that told me if I went there I had a chance to play right away,” said Thomas who teamed up with future NHL All-Star Martin St. Louis to help the Catamounts to two NCAA tournament appearances.
“Ultimately I had the opportunity and I had to take it. Basically, it changed everything.”
Roger Grillo, an assistant coach at Vermont at the time, couldn’t agree more.
“I’d love to say we got him because I was a genius and saw this [success] coming,” joked Grillo, who now works with USA Hockey as a regional manager for the American Development Model.
“But to be honest it worked out for us, it was good fortune and good timing. There were plenty of teams looking at him but not willing to pull the trigger. We told him there was a spot and he said ‘sure.’ You can’t ask for much more.”
Thomas found a home in Burlington during his four years with the Catamounts, posting an 81-43-15 record to go with a 2.70 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage, on-top of 3,950 career saves, which remains third in the NCAA Division I record books.
His standout play earned him a late-round call from the Quebec Nordiques in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, and it seemed that things were beginning to look up for the goalie with an unorthodox style.
After brief stints in the East Coast and International Hockey Leagues, Thomas thought his best opportunity for advancement would be found overseas where he joined the SM-Liiga before helping push the HIFK Helsinki-Finland team to two back-to-back championship appearances.
“I had a good time playing in Europe,” Thomas said. “It wasn't the NHL, but I was getting paid to play a sport I love. When I finally got the chance, I just wanted to prove to people that I could play at the NHL level. All the hard work paid off.”
And it has paid off in full, as Thomas eventually found himself a fixture between the pipes for the Bruins in 2006-07 and hasn’t looked back since, posting figures that would make any goaltender shake his head in disbelief. The accolades have continued to mount over the past several season with a Vezina Trophy in 2009 and a roster sport with the 2010 U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver.
“My goal as a kid was to play in the Olympics; it wasn’t to play in the NHL,” said Thomas, who saw limited action with the upstart silver medalists.
“Jim Craig was a hero of mine, really the reason I switched from a forward to a goalie. To wear that USA crest across my chest is something I will never forget and always cherish.”
Even hip surgery in the summer of 2010 couldn’t slow down this newfound goaltending juggernaut heading into this season that saw Thomas again lead the NHL with a 2.00 GAA and recording the highest save percentage (.938) since the NHL began recording the stat in 1982 and making him a contender for the Vezina Trophy once again.
“Those of us that were around him for his college career aren’t overly shocked at how good he’s played at this level. He’s athleticism, competitiveness and passion is what has driven him to where he is today,” Grillo said.
“What he has gone through as a professional and the ups and downs and all the hurdles he’s had to overcome to get to the spot he has is amazing and you just have to tip your hat to him.”
And now there is just one more hurdle standing in his way before he can carve his name on hockey’s Holy Grail.
“Having taken the long road just to get to the NHL, I think I appreciate the opportunity to be here in the Stanley Cup finals, the opportunity that this presents,” said the 37-year-old.
“It’s exactly where every hockey player wants to be, but it’s hard to get to. Now that we’re here, we should take advantage of it and try to take the Cup home.”