Skip to main content

Top 100 Goalies: No. 35 — Tim Thomas

He dominated in Europe for a decade before getting an NHL chance. But when the opportunity came, he seized it.

It should come as no surprise that Tim Thomas appears to have taken himself off the grid. After all, it took the hockey world long enough to find him the first time around. After his career ended in 2014, Thomas simply rode off into the sunset and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

There was talk he had settled in Colorado, but his former agent, Bill Zito, said a birthday card arrived for his daughter recently from Thomas’ daughter that was postmarked from somewhere in Idaho. The Boston Bruins, the team for which he starred and won a Stanley Cup, can’t seem to find him, nor can the Dallas Stars or Florida Panthers. “They’ve asked him to come back for things like the Winter Classic and other events, but he always turns them down,” said Pavel Navrat, an old teammate from Thomas’ days at the University of Vermont who still keeps in touch with him. “He has definitely moved on.”

Which is too bad, because it would be interesting to hear what Thomas thinks about, among other things, all these teams that win championships and then eschew the chance to visit the White House, largely because of the man who occupies the office. In fact, it’s applauded in many corners now. That certainly wasn’t the case when the Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and Thomas went against the grain of the hockey world and society in general by refusing to be feted by then-president Barack Obama. Devoutly Christian and zealously right wing in his political beliefs, Thomas was something of a polarizing figure late in his career, albeit one who was well spoken, courteous and introspective.

He was also one of the most competitive and scrappy players to ever make the NHL. Originally from Flint, Mich., Thomas came from very humble beginnings. In fact, his parents once hawked their wedding rings so their son could attend a hockey school. Thomas didn’t even become an NHL regular until he was 31, and that was after he passed through league waivers so the Bruins could send him to the AHL, essentially giving the 29 other teams in the league a golden opportunity to acquire him for nothing. By the time he made the Bruins for good in 2005-06, he had already been property of two other NHL teams and had spent the previous eight seasons playing for 10 different teams in six leagues and four countries. “The first thing I think about when it comes to Tim Thomas is he was the ultimate battler,” said former Bruins teammate Marc Savard. “He battled all the time. Until it was across the goal line, he was staying on it. I remember I used to call his style, instead of the butterfly, the ‘battlefly.’ ”

Thomas’ approach to his career was much the same as it was to a puck rolling toward the goal line in that he simply would not give up on it. A ninth-round draft pick of the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, Thomas attended a couple of training camps with the organization after graduating from the University of Vermont. It was in Vermont that Thomas got his first big break in hockey, thanks to a couple of high-flying teammates named Martin St-Louis and Eric Perrin. Jarmo Kekalainen, who was the GM of IFK Helsinki at the time, was a frequent visitor to Vermont games because he was trying to get the dynamic duo to come and play hockey in Finland. He never did, but the guy in Vermont’s crease caught his eye, and Kekalainen invited Thomas to Helsinki for a tryout.

For the next eight years, with brief stops in North America in between, Thomas forged a career as a goaltending superstar in Finland and Sweden. Former Bruins GM Mike O’Connell signed Thomas to a two-way contract in 2002, and he played in the team’s system for two years, then returned to Finland and starred with Jokerit before O’Connell brought him back on a one-way deal in 2005. And the rest is history. “His first year in Finland, he won the championship, and he just destroyed that league,” said Zito, who now works with Kekalainen as assistant GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets. “When he was outside the NHL, he wasn’t just good, he was dominant. So it wasn’t hard to say, ‘There’s something in this player. He’s a good goalie. Maybe he needs more than a half a season and needs to be in the right place at the right time.’ Being on this (management) side, you realize how small those windows can be.”

And that right time came with the Bruins in 2005-06. In 2003-04, Andrew Raycroft had stunned the hockey world by winning the Calder Trophy in the final campaign before a season-long shutdown, but he struggled to rediscover his form when the league reconvened in 2005. That gave the 31-year-old Thomas the opportunity he had been waiting for his entire career. In summer 2006, the Bruins traded Raycroft to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a prospect by the name of Tuukka Rask, a move that solidified Boston at the goaltending position for 12 years and counting. “The year before we signed (Thomas), he had 15 shutouts in the Finnish League, which at the time was one of the best leagues in the world for producing goaltenders,” said O’Connell, now the director of pro development for the Los Angeles Kings. “So it was pretty easy to make a decision to sign him to a contract. We were really worried about getting him through (waivers), and we were lucky we did.”

Thomas was outstanding for the Bruins, but never more so than in 2010-11, when he led the organization to its first Stanley Cup since 1972. His save percentage of .938 that season is the best ever recorded by a goalie who played more than 40 games. He won the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies and was the backbone of a championship team. All told, Thomas had a career save percentage of .920, which ties him for the fourth-best on record among goalies who have played at least 200 games, behind Dominik Hasek, Rask and Ken Dryden, who all share first place with a .922 mark. It was in that championship season with the Bruins that Thomas secured his place as an all-time great goaltender. “I always say to people about that year that he was literally attacking the puck,” Savard said. “He wasn’t even letting the puck get to him. He was attacking it, and it was pretty special to see.”

Within a year, however, Thomas was out of the NHL, announcing after the 2011-12 season that he would sit out the following season. He made a comeback with the Panthers in 2013-14 and finished his career in Dallas after he was dealt to the Stars at the trade deadline. Since then, however, Thomas has seemingly vanished from the hockey landscape, something that doesn’t really surprise his former teammate. “Off the ice, he would come to the odd team dinner with us, but he is his own person who has his own views on life, let’s say,” Savard said. “I don’t want to say he was a loner, but he definitely kept to himself, and we respected that. That was just the way he was.”

That penchant for marching to the beat of his own drummer has probably created a few misperceptions about Thomas. In fact, Zito marvels at the fact that Thomas stuck with him for all those years of playing in the minors when he knew in his mind and heart that he was good enough to play in the NHL. “He had a ton of loyalty,” Zito said. “You always see players blame the agent when things don’t go their way, and he never turned, never bailed on me. Imagine going almost 10 years feeling that strongly and that confident about your ability and constantly being told ‘no’ and not turning or pointing a finger. To me, that demonstrates the character and loyalty he has, and it says a lot about who he is.”

Born: April 15, 1974, Flint, Mich.
NHL Career: 2002-14
Teams: Bos, Fla, Dal
Stats: 214-145-49, 2.52 GAA, .920 SP, 31 SO
All-Star: 2 (First-2)
Trophies: 3 (Vezina-2, Smythe-1)
Stanley Cups: 1

DID YOU KNOW?

Since the NHL began awarding the Vezina Trophy in 1982 to the best goalie in the league as selected by the GMs, Thomas is the oldest recipient, beating Dominik Hasek by a few months. Of all the Vezina winners, only Jacques Plante, Glenn Hall, Johnny Bower and Gump Worsley were older when they won or shared the trophy for playing for the team with the NHL’s best GAA. Thomas won the Vezina in 2010-11 at 37.

TOP HEADLINES

USATSI_18118603

Penguins Sign Rust to Six-Year Extension

The Pittsburgh Penguins have reportedly signed forward Bryan Rust to a six-year contract extension, taking him off the market.

David Perron

Screen Shots: Dallas Stars Coaching Search and David Perron's Brilliance

Adam Proteau returns to talk about who the Dallas Stars should look into to become the next coach and looks at David Perron's incredible play.

Eve Gascon

Eve Gascon: Carrying The Torch

With some advice from previous trailblazers in mind, Eve Gascon performed well in her QMJHL debut with the Olympiques. She has a bright future ahead.