Here's a small tale about a road trip to Burlington to watch the University of Vermont Catamounts. I took it mostly because of the explosive offensive talents of one Martin St. Louis and his running buddy, Eric Perrin. The two were an electric pair, and the Hockey News had heaped effusive praise on them, prompting this hockey scribe (when he was just an aficionado) to embark on a pilgrimage to see the dynamic duo.
However, a funny thing happened in Vermont in 1995.
After the weekend slate of games, it was the Catamounts' goaltender who made the biggest impression, a little-known and then-Colorado Avalanche prospect who had been selected in the ninth round of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft when the team was still known as the Quebec Nordiques.
No. 32 was small, but extremely combative and agile. He was a whirling dervish of mismatched goalie pads and the old helmet-birdcage combo mask instead of the sleek painted headgear that most netminders even in the NCAA were sporting back then. Watching Thomas stop shot after shot, often in desperation, it was plain to see he was an NHL prospect, even if he was a late-round pick.
As you all know, St. Louis became an NHL MVP and Stanley Cup champion in 2004 despite his small stature. Perrin had an NHL cup of coffee but never established himself as a regular. And the goalie?
Tim Thomas made that much of an impression almost 16 years ago. And anyone who has read the New England Hockey Journal knows that when he finally made it to the NHL for good in early 2006, almost a decade after leaving the Green Mountain state, we were probably the only folks other than Thomas and his agent, Bill Zito, along with close family members, who knew he had it in him to be the Vezina Trophy winner he's become.
Thomas is an amazing story. Fresh off the heels of a 31-save shutout of close friend St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, the 37-year-old who was taken late in a draft that produced Evgeni Nabokov, Tomas Vokoun and John Grahame- all in the same round- is playing the best hockey of his career. Some would argue that his record-shattering stint in the Finnish SM-Liiga with Jokerit during the lockout season of 2004-05 qualifies, but when you're talking about setting the NHL's official (modern) save percentage record with a .938 since the league officially started tracking that stat in 1982, what Thomas has done is simply remarkable.
We used to call him a poor man's Dominik Hasek, but that label isn't fair anymore. Thomas has firmly established himself in Hasek's class, with the only thing lacking on his resume being a Stanley Cup championship. Hasek himself was 37 years old by the time he won his first Cup- in 2002 with the powerhouse Red Wings, in the midst of their two-decade run of excellence. Even during that championship season, the future Hall of Fame goalie who is still playing in the KHL for Moscow Spartak at age 46 (and you thought Mark Recchi was old!) posted a pretty pedestrian .915 save percentage during the regular season- a full .23 percentage points lower than Thomas this season.
The Bruin who now looks like quite a bargain at $5 million per season with another two years on his deal remaining (especially when you consider how well Hasek played into his 40s) has finally proven once and for all that he belongs in that rarified air with Hasek, to whom he's been most compared because of his playing style. Even though he won the NHL's top honors for a goaltender two years ago, he never quite got the respect he deserved, but in 2011, he cannot be denied.
The Vezina Trophy is a fait accompli for the Michigander who was kicking around in junior after graduating from high school because nobody wanted him. It's a fine achievement to be sure, but in reality, Thomas has been there. Like the kid who always had so much to prove to everyone else who doubted him, the Cinderella story cannot be complete without a championship in the books and the name Tim Thomas on the Stanley Cup.
Up until this spring, the only real chink in his armor was that he had never been able to get the Bruins past the second round of the playoffs. With the win last night, he has 10 playoff victories- the first time a Boston netminder has gone double digits for wins since 1991 when Andy Moog did it, taking a 2-0 lead in the Prince of Wales Conference finals only to see the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins (again with some guy named Recchi- how does he do it?) storm back to win four straight.
Thomas has at times been brilliant and others very shaky. But the difference this year more than any other is that when the B's have needed him to steal a game, he's been there for them. With 20 playoff wins under his belt for his career, he's already fourth on Boston's all-time list, trailing only Gerry Cheevers (53), Moog (35) and Frank Brimsek (32). Thomas has effectively carved a nice, albeit incomplete legacy for himself in the Black and Gold. Of those three players, only Moog failed to win a Stanley Cup, coming oh-so-close in 1990. Cheevers and Brimsek each have two of Boston's five NHL championships in team history.
If anyone can help break the futile streak of 39 years without a parade in Lord Stanley's honor, it is the man who will soon join Hockey Hall of Famers Cecil "Tiny" Thompson and Brimsek as the only multiple Vezina Tophy-winning goalies for the Bruins. However, that honor, as great as it will be, cannot compare to the power and glory of a Stanley Cup.
And so, the quest for silver chalice forges on, with Thomas and his band of olde towne knights bringing Boston hockey back to breathtaking heights not enjoyed since team president Cam Neely was in his 20s and defenseman Ray Bourque, now 10 years retired, was still in his prime. With Thomas between the pipes, this team believes. And, it has the talent to contend.
The storybook season is by no means complete. There are still several chapters to be written. Whether the ending is a happy or tragic one, nobody knows. But the author of this stirring tale- one Timothy James Thomas, Jr. has captivated an audience of millions. We are hanging on his every word.
And if we've learned anything about Thomas over the years, we're in for an exciting ending.