When Tim Thomas arrives in Atlanta for this weekend’s NHL all-star festivities, he doesn’t know whether he’ll be asking the other players for autographs, posing in photos with them or just swapping stories.
And it doesn’t matter one bit to the Boston Bruins goalie, who will make his all-star debut at age 33.
Thomas was a late addition to the Eastern Conference lineup this week and freely admits he has no idea what to expect from the experience.
“You know, I don’t even know what first-timers usually do,” Thomas said Wednesday on a conference call. “That’s how inexperienced I am. Being a late appointment, I’m kind of in the dark still.”
There shouldn’t be many hockey fans who are still in the dark about Thomas.
He leads the NHL with a .927 save percentage and has put together a record of 15-11-3 for a Bruins team that has battled injuries all year.
What makes his success even more impressive is that he’s played for more than 10 pro teams and didn’t become an NHL regular until the age of 30. Thomas had a couple different stints in Finland and couldn’t help but reflect on those times while explaining how proud he felt after becoming an NHL all-star.
“As far as making the all-star game, it was kind of so unattainable that you didn’t dare think about it for so many years,” said Thomas. “It was just a hard enough battle just to try to make it to the NHL.”
Former teammate Quinn Hancock sent Thomas an e-mail from Sweden after hearing the goalie had earned a spot in the game. Hancock wrote that the selection was the final proof that Thomas had made the right decision in signing with Boston back in September 2005.
Thomas was playing for Jokerit when he received the Bruins contract offer and nearly turned it down to stay in Finland.
“I’d pretty much made peace with the fact that it was never going to happen,” he said of his NHL dream. “(When he was offered the contract), it was a really difficult decision for me to actually take that chance and come back to the NHL because I had made that peace.”
He’s hardly looked back since.
In fact, Thomas played well enough the past two years that he started to dream about an all-star game appearance over the summer. He still considered it a long shot.
“That’s one thing that I made in my mental list of goals and I can’t believe that it actually bore fruit,” said Thomas. “I mean just hearing them announce me: ‘Tim has been elected to the 2008 all-star game.’
“It’s funny even hearing it to my ears.”
There might not be another player more excited to hear his name called when the game is played at Phillips Arena on Sunday night.
Thomas had originally promised to take his daughter Kiley on a shopping trip to New York during the all-star break but the seven-year-old didn’t mind the change in itinerary.
“She wasn’t that tough of a sell,” said Thomas. “I talked to her (Tuesday) afternoon and I said, ‘Are you disappointed we aren’t going to New York City?’ And she’s like, ‘No, we’re going someplace better.’
“We sold her on the fact that Atlanta has a great aquarium.”
Thomas credits his wife Melissa and agent Bill Zito for helping him absorb all the ups and downs he’s had to endure to make it this far.
He’s now the kind of success story that other players look to for inspiration.
One of them is journeyman defenceman Mike Mottau, who approached Thomas after a game last year and said he wanted to follow his example. The 29-year-old Mottau is now a mainstay on the New Jersey Devils defence.
Thomas is always happy to hear about other players overcoming long odds to make it to the NHL, but he isn’t totally comfortable being a role model for them.
“I have heard it before,” said Thomas. “Sometimes it just makes me so awkward. I didn’t set out to be an example. I just was trying to do the best that I could.”