From Vermont to the Stanley Cup, Thomas’ journey a memorable one

When Vermont goaltender Tim Thomas lost a heartbreaking game in the NCAA Frozen Four in 1996, little could he have known where his life would go after he left the Catamounts green and gold to embark on a professional career.

So when Thomas raised the Stanley Cup over his head on Wednesday night, the moment certainly represented a pinnacle in an incredible journeyman career that began in Burlington, Vt., nearly two decades earlier.

Vermont goaltender Tim Thomas (Vermont Athletics)
Tim Thomas led Vermont to its first Frozen Four in 1996, but his road to the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy was anything but easy (photo: Vermont Athletics).

Thomas was a workhorse, record breaker and almost any other adjective you can use to describe a goaltender who is the absolute go-to guy as the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks, 4-0, in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. In earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs MVP, Thomas set nearly every postseason goaltending record.

What makes Thomas’ story, though, isn’t as much his performance in the 25-game postseason for the Bruins as much it is about the journey that got this former Catamounts standout there.

Despite stellar campaigns in his junior and senior years at Vermont, including the nation’s best save percentage in 1996 and the school’s first Frozen Four berth that same year, Thomas was a man without a team when he graduated in 1997.

He dangled around both the ECHL and the now-defunct IHL in cities like Birmingham, Ala., and Houston before finally landing in a place that was comfortable — Finland.

Thomas, who reached the Finnish Elite League finals twice, recently said if his career ended there, he’d have been happy.

After the past two months, though, you have to believe he’s even happier that it didn’t.

Thomas was signed by the Bruins in 2002 and played much of the season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Providence, R.I. As he was trying to make an name for himself stateside, the NHL lockout occurred, sending Thomas once again back to Finland.

Not sure if he’d ever return, Thomas posted a record-setting season with 13 shutouts in 54 regular season games. Despite earning the league’s MVP award, the talented netminder fell short in the finals for the second — and last — time.

Once the NHL reopened its doors in 2005, Thomas was back in Bruins black and gold. Again, though, he began the season in the minors but got his chance to prove his worth when both Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen suffered injuries.

That break was the beginning of greatness for Thomas.

As a starter in the 2007-08 season, Thomas showed his worth as an NHL goaltender and made his first of three straight NHL All-Star Game appearances (for the record, he was the winning goaltender in all three). As the Bruins began their quest for the Stanley Cup this April, it was Thomas who was the go-to goaltender for the ride. And what a ride it was.

Surviving critics

Things hardly began smooth for the Bruins in the opening round of the Stanley Cup as they fell behind two games to none to the Montreal Canadiens. In the opening game, Thomas was criticized for both of the goals he allowed in the 2-0 loss but coach Claude Julien stuck by his man.

The Bruins rallied to win the series in seven games and Thomas was the hero down the stretch, giving the Bruins a chance to win each game. When all was said and done, Thomas and his club had survived.

After a four-game sweep of Philadelphia in the second round, Thomas was once again under the magnifying glass when he gave up three early goals against Tampa Bay in the opening game of the Eastern Conference finals. Similar to the Montreal series, Thomas rallied his team and when everything was on the line, Thomas was phenomenal in the seventh game, a 1-0 victory where Thomas by far outshone everyone on the ice.

By the time Thomas reached the Stanley Cup Final, the first for Boston since 1990, you’d have think that the critics would be silenced. But when Boston again fell behind two games to none, his unorthodox style of venturing outside the crease to challenge shooters once again earned the Vezina Trophy finalist criticism.

Many complained that in overtime of Game 2 Thomas had gotten too aggressive challenging Alex Burrows, allowing the talented forward the chance to wrap around the net and tuck the puck into an open goal. Boston sports radio spent hours playing armchair quarterback, ignoring that without Thomas the Stanley Cup Final would be just a pipe dream.

But, as if a microcosm of his entire professional career, he proved his critics wrong.

He battled back to tie the series with dominating performances at home. The Bruins offense came alive to record 8-1 and 4-0 victories. The Canucks goaltender, Roberto Luongo, who had carried home the gold medal for Canada a year ago, surrendered all eight goals in Game 3 and was chased from the game in Game 4.

Suddenly, Bruins fans and Thomas critics understood what they had: the best man in net.

War of words

With the series returning to Vancouver tied at two games apiece, Thomas once again turned in a remarkable performance, allowing just a single goal. That, though, wasn’t good enough as Luongo bettered him, posting a shutout.

It was after that game that a series fueled by heavy hits and strange extracurricular activities (most notably a finger bite after the whistle in Game 1) took yet another crazy turn.

Luongo, after giving up 12 goals in Games 3 and 4, criticized Thomas’ style, saying that he would’ve been able to save the game’s only goal — a rebound off the back boards that came out the opposite site and was buried by Maxim Lapierre late in the third period. He said that he stays closer to the net and thus would have been in position for the goal.

A day later, when media wondered Luongo’s reasoning for questioning Thomas, particularly in light of his own play, the naive goaltender said that Thomas hadn’t “pumped his tires” throughout the entire series. Translation: He was upset Thomas wasn’t talking about how well he had played.

The next day, when questioned about Luongo’s comments, Thomas kept his rebuttal short, saying he didn’t know it was his job to pump Luongo’s tires.

That was it. Nothing more was said about Luongo by Thomas. It was the veteran goalie’s decision to speak the only way he knew how: with stellar play.

Those who followed the Stanley Cup Final know how this story ended. Thomas was incredible in Games 6 and 7, posting a shutout in the final game and surpassing the all-time marks for shots faced and saves made in a single playoff year, and for shots faced in a Stanley Cup Final. Thomas and his teammates lifted the Cup on enemy ice, winning the club’s first title since 1972.

Many, including Thomas’ coach, credit the netminder for remaining focused throughout the playoffs, particularly after the fifth Stanley Cup game. If anything, Thomas proved that he had sufficient confidence in his own play to not have to play psychological games.

“Well, I think he’s been in the zone for the whole playoffs and you can barely count on one hand how many bad goals he’s given up in this whole playoffs,” Julien said. “That speaks volumes for him. He’s come in and decided just to focus on his play and nothing else. He’s been outstanding for us and we all know the teams that normally win the Stanley Cup usually have unbelievable goaltending.”

For Thomas, the need to “prove” himself during the Stanley Cup playoffs, and in particularly through the final, was nothing out of the ordinary for this journeyman who has spent nearly a decade and a half speaking with his play and almost never with words.

That, though, didn’t keep the Conn Smythe-winning goalie from talking after winning.

“I know the game, and I know the way that it is,” Thomas said. “Winning the Stanley Cup is huge. It’s the biggest accomplishment of my career thus far.

“But everybody knows in this game that you have to continuously prove yourself. I’m sure if I were to, for example, start out the season bad next year that I probably, with the Cup, would have bought myself a little bit of leeway, but it won’t last forever unless I turn my game around.”

Truth be told, Thomas is likely selling himself a little short. As Boston Bruins fans celebrate the end of a 39-year drought, the “what have you done for me lately” attitude may have given him even more than just a “little bit” of leeway.

Thomas, though, has proven time and time again that leeway won’t be necessary.