Tim Thomas: American Hockey Hero

Minutes before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman handed Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara the Stanley Cup, the commish invited Tim Thomas to accept the Conn Smythe Trophy. For just the second time in NHL history, an American was named the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

His playoff run was one for the ages.

Shawn P. Roarke of NHL.com explains the numbers behind Thomas’s historic run:

Thomas, at 37 the oldest player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, set NHL records for most saves in one playoff year (798), most shots faced in one playoff year (849) and most saves in a Stanley Cup Final (238). He also became the first goalie to post a shutout on the road in Game 7 of the Final.

In the Final, Thomas posted a 1.15 goals-against average and a .967 save percentage, the lowest total in each category in the modern era among goaltenders with at least five appearances.

The legend grows.

When you consider the road Thomas took to get to where he is now, it’s not only mind blowing… it’s inspiring. The fact that he made it to the NHL is as improbable as his winning the Conn Smythe.

Now, Thomas has a Stanley Cup, a Conn Smythe and a Vezina to his name (and likely will add a second). He’s the only American goaltender in the history of game to have his name on all three trophies. Other guys that have done it? Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden, Bernie Parent… just to name few. All-time greats of the game.

When you look at Thomas’s bio on NHL.com, it’s almost like playing “Where in the World is Tim Thomas?”

From the University of Vermont, to Birmingham, Ala., to Helsinki to Houston to Hamilton, Ont., to Detroit (IHL) to Solna, Sweden to Oula, Finland to Providence, R.I., to Boston to Helsinki one more time and then finally his permanent NHL home, Boston.

Though he was drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the 9th round (217th overall) of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft, Thomas didn’t make it to the NHL until 2003. He didn’t become a full-timer until 2006-07.  Despite his short NHL career, he has undoubtedly entered the discussion of one of the all-time best American goaltenders.

Sometimes it’s not about how long you’ve been there, but what you did with the time you were given. It took Thomas a long time to get his shot. So he didn’t waste a second of it when he got there. And he’s not done yet.

So where does Tim Thomas fit in in USA Hockey history?

John Vanbiesbrouck has the most wins of any American-born goaltender in NHL history, and a Vezina to his name… but no Cup. Mike Richter has a Stanley Cup, was the MVP of the 1996 World Cup of Hockey in a winning effort, but no Vezina. Tom Barrasso has two Stanley Cups, a Vezina and a Calder Trophy. Frank Brimsek, aka Mr. Zero, won a Calder, a Vezina, two Stanley Cups and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Tim Thomas’s career is not yet concluded, but he’s already put himself in elite company. All in a much shorter amount of time than the rest of the names listed above.

If Thomas is able to wrap up his second Vezina Trophy, he will become the first American-born goaltender to double up on the position’s most prestigious award. Let’s not forget that just last season, Thomas was fighting for his own job.

As the incomparable Craig Custance wrote, this whole dream season was so close to not even happening at all.

Regardless of where Tim Thomas falls in American hockey history, he is the biggest thing going in the American hockey present.

Like Mike Richter before him, there will be hundreds of American kids who become Tim Thomas in their driveways and basements.

The beauty of Tim Thomas and his new found influence in American hockey is that he gives kids hope. He’s proof that no matter who tells you no, or how long it takes to get there, it’s possible.

Perhaps the only people who won’t be too happy about the success of Tim Thomas are all of the parents of kids who decide they’ll want to be a goalie after watching Thomas play (and also the goalie coaches who have kids that want to play like Thomas).

For the rest of us, it is impossible to watch Thomas play, or listen to him speak and not just fall in love with the guy.

He has continually proven that he is not a fluke. His success comes after years of dedication. Years where he didn’t even think the NHL was a remote possibility, but he kept playing anyway. Thomas even said in his post-game press conference he would have been just as happy to have finished out his career in Finland. I think that’s probably true. Back then, he didn’t know any different.

Had the Bruins not taken a chance on a journeyman goaltender in 2002, maybe this story never happens. Maybe the Bruins don’t win the Stanley Cup. Maybe the mass American public never hears the name Tim Thomas.

But the Bruins did take a chance. They did win the Stanley Cup and every person near a TV in the last 24 hours knows the name Tim Thomas. For hockey fans around the U.S., it’s a name we won’t soon forget.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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