The Tim Thomas Saga has come to an end, at least in Boston. One of the most prolific and polarizing figures in Boston Bruins history, Thomas rose from an unknown journeyman to a local folk hero to a hockey legend in just a few short years, before unceremoniously falling from grace last season. He was dealt to the New York Islanders on Thursday. In Part 1 of this two-part look at Tim Thomas & The Boston Bruins, we take a look back at his Hollywood rise to superstardom. (see Part 2)
Just reaching the NHL was a journey in itself for the man they call “The Tank.” As a youngster born in Flint and growing up in Davison, MI, Thomas’ parents once pawned their wedding rings in order to pay for his trip to play in a hockey tournament.
Fast forward to the 1994 NHL Entry Draft where the 5’11” 201 lb. goaltender was drafted in the 9th round, 217th overall by the Quebec Nordiques out of the University of Vermont. At UVM, Thomas put together a career record of 81-43-15 with a 2.70 GAA and .934 save percentage, leading the nation in save percentage in 1996.
After starring for four years for the Catamounts, people were still doubting Thomas. He split the following 1997-98 season between the Birmingham Bulls of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), Houston Aeros of the old International Hockey League (IHL), and HIFK Helsinki of the SM-liiga in Finland, where he would win the Kanada-malja, the league’s championship trophy. That was just one season. The following four seasons, Thomas would bounce from the American Hockey League (AHL) back to the SM-liiga, to another IHL team, to the Swedish Elite League (SEL/Elitserien), to another SM-liiga team. It wasn’t until 2002-03, after spending most of the year with the AHL Providence Bruins, that Thomas would make his long-awaited NHL debut with Boston.
With an NHL cup of coffee on his resume, Thomas returned to Finland during the 2004-05 lockout. Playing in 54 of 55 games that season for Jokerit of the SM-liiga, Tank lead the league with a .946 save percentage and a record-setting 15 shutouts. He was presented with the league’s awards for “best player” and “best player as voted on by the players.” The MVP would return to North America when the lockout was lifted.
Back in Black & Gold
Thomas rose to prominence in Boston during the 2005-06 season, filling in for injured goaltenders Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen. He posted some pretty good numbers that season, but was lauded mainly for being a workhorse, again seemingly manning the crease every night. His unorthodox style made for a pretty highlights package, but people questioned how much he could get by on pure athleticism. His next two seasons, Thomas was forced to battle off challengers every year, always coming into the season as the backup or co-starter to guys like Toivonen or Manny Fernandez, before emerging as the team’s top netminder by year’s end.
In order to play for the big club that breakout season, Thomas even had to clear re-entry waivers from Providence. After seeing the way he would steal games for the Bruins over the next seven seasons, rival general managers had to be kicking themselves for not putting a claim in and gobbling up Thomas for nothing more than space on their roster.
In both 2005-06 and 2006-07, Tank won the Boston Bruins 7th Player Award, an annual award that is “presented to the Bruin who went above and beyond the call of duty.” A nice award, to be sure, but Thomas wasn’t satisfied. In 2008-09, a teary Tim Thomas won the Jennings Trophy (along with Fernandez for fewest goals allowed by a team) and the coveted Vezina Trophy, as the league’s top goaltender. Thomas had reached the individual height of his profession. He wasn’t done.
A Season For The Ages
Battling a sore hip, Thomas took a step back in 2009-10, losing his starting job to Tuukka Rask by the time they playoffs had rolled around. After offseason hip surgery, Boston’s projected “1-B” goaltender returned on a mission. Not only did he snatch back his job, Thomas set a new NHL record with a .938 save percentage en route to his second Vezina Trophy. As hard as it is to believe, Thomas played even better when it mattered most, recording Game 7 shutouts to clinch both the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup, the first ever Game 7 Stanley Cup shutout by a visiting team’s goaltender. He even elevated his record-breaking regular season save percentage to .967 in the Stanley Cup Finals, another new record.
With such a dominant performance allowing just eight goals in seven Stanley Cup Finals games (another record) to go with his total body of work (playing every minute of his team’s playoff run), it is no surprise that Thomas was also awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. At 37 years old, Thomas became the oldest player to ever receive the award and the first American-born goaltender to do so.
In 2010-11, Thomas enjoyed the best season for a goaltender in NHL history. He was the first goaltender to win the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, and Vezina trophies in the same season since Bernie Parent in 1974-75, plus he had rewritten the record book along the way. If his career arc had indeed reached the top, no one expected it to fall so quickly, so dramatically. Check out Part 2 for Thomas’ downfall and to find out where the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders will go from here.