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Duthie: No Doubting Thomas

James Duthie
11/10/2008 12:36:26 PM
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For my money, the most entertaining player in hockey isn't Ovechkin or Crosby or Alfredsson.  It's a guy who has never scored a goal, and often resembles a freshly caught fish on the bottom of a boat.

Boston's Tim Thomas is the best thing to happen to goaltending since the mask. 

Where do I start? He's small, so his equipment doesn't make him eclipse the net like some of those Jabba The Hutt look-alikes. He doesn't have one of those robotic techniques. Heck, I'm not sure he has any technique! If he does the butterfly, it looks like it's missing a wing, flying in all directions. Every night with Thomas is like Live at the Improv. He's made the position fun again.

"Do you want to look pretty getting scored on, or ugly making the save?" he asks with a rhetorical chuckle.

Thomas makes ugly, ridiculous, impossible saves nightly. And just to make things interesting, he's occasionally awful. When that happens, when he flips when he should have flopped, he gets so mad at himself, it looks like David Banner turning into The Hulk. 

"With most goalies, you know their tendencies, but Timmy doesn't have any tendencies," says Tampa forward Martin St. Louis, who played with Thomas at the University of Vermont. "I have a tougher time scoring against him than almost any goalie."

Good or bad (and the latter is becoming increasingly rare), Thomas is never dull. My buddy, a diehard Bruins fan, calls him "terrifying to watch" (and he wears a Thomas jersey).

And he almost never got to watch him. For his entire hockey playing life, Thomas was told he had zero shot at making the NHL. Which is probably the exact reason he did.

He grew up in Flint, Michigan, around the time Michael Moore made "Roger and Me", a movie about the town dying. His Dad, Tim Sr., was a used car salesman at a time when no one in Flint could afford a car. So he sold apples door-to-door. He'd sell ten bushels, use some of the money to buy seven more, and give those to Tim to sell. That's how Jr. raised his money to play hockey.   

When things got really bad, his parents pawned their wedding rings to pay for Tim to go to a goalie school. The son didn't find out until his Dad bought his Mom a new one many years later.

He wore the same beaten up pads for years, repairing them over and over until they… well… disintegrated.

"I was playing for the Lakeland Jets and (former NHLer) Joe Murphy was skating with us while he was holding out with the Oilers," Thomas says. "He took a shot and it literally went right through my pad and out the backside."

Murphy would do more for the young goalie than give him a great story for beer-night. Thomas was a never-see-the-ice third stringer on that Lakeland junior team, so he started playing forward. But right after the Christmas break, the starting goalie missed his flight back from Alaska and the back-up got in a car accident. So Thomas took all the shots in practice. As he was skating off the ice, he heard Murphy say to the coach: "Why aren't you playing that guy?"

So he did. Every game for the rest of the year. That launched Thomas on a netminding odyssey that would take him to, in chronological order: Vermont (University), Helsinki, Birmingham (ECHL), Houston (IHL), Hamilton (AHL), Helsinki (again), Detroit (IHL), Sweden, back to Finland, Providence (AHL), Boston (cup of coffee), Providence, Helsinki (this is getting silly), Providence, and finally, at the age of 32, Boston…to stay.

"It never once crossed my mind to quit," Thomas says. "But at one point, I did make peace with the fact I'd be playing in Europe for the rest of my career."

He might have, except that when a bunch of other NHL goalies came over to Europe during the lockout, Thomas outplayed them all, and forced the Bruins to take another look.  Three years later, they're still looking.

His competitiveness is legendary. As a junior, he was invited to the U.S Olympic Festival, essentially a tryout camp for the World Juniors. The players were split into four squads and played a round-robin. Thomas played half of each of the four games, and gave up just one goal as his team won the tournament. The other goalie on his squad gave up 11, and he was the one picked for the World Junior team.

"I was so mad," recalls Thomas. "USA Hockey had bought me a dozen sticks, and it was the first time anyone had bought me sticks so it was huge for me. Well, I went in the back room and demolished every stick against the wall. I was irate."

Even better story: when he played at Vermont, he once got so mad after being scored on, he picked up the puck and launched it at the scoreboard, shattering lights and causing a fireworks show reminiscent of Roy Hobbs last homerun in The Natural.  And that was in practice.

"There were pieces of light falling over the ice," says St Louis, chuckling. "It was hilarious."

Just watch Thomas when he loses a shootout. He sprints off the ice like someone tossed a grenade in his net. Like they're going to send him back to Flint to sell apples. 

Somewhat sadly, we're not seeing many of those Thomas tantrums anymore (Angry Tim is my favorite Tim). He just doesn't get scored on much. He was an All-Star last year and his .944 save percentage leads the NHL this season. 

And yet, so typical of his Dangerfield existence, he was left off the All-Star ballot. There they go. Doubting Thomas. Again. 

"I'm going to have to disappoint you and give you a 'No comment' on that one," he says. That's okay. Sometimes "No comment" says more than a dozen quoted paragraphs.

The ballot snub is just more motivation to go out and contort his body into all those bizarre, wonderful shapes that somehow keep pucks on the happy side of the redline.

"Dominek Hasek on steroids," as one opposing forward puts it.

And with every save, every win, it's as if Thomas is speaking to all of those who doubted him along the way, saying:

"How do you like them apples?"

From The Ottawa Citizen



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