Thursday, June 16, 2011

Tim Thomas' Unlikely Rise to Greatness Peaks with Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe

From Sporting News online:

VANCOUVER -- He knew. Some players can play in the NHL for decades and never get a chance at a Stanley Cup.

Tim Thomas was nearly one of those players. At 37 years old, the Bruins goalie was realistic about the opportunity in front of him as the Bruins advanced in the playoffs.

It might’ve been his only shot to win a Cup.

One of the worst moments of his career was sitting on the bench in Vancouver during the Winter Olympics, watching his Team USA teammates lose in the gold medal game to Team Canada. Watching Ryan Miller allow a goal to Sidney Crosby that sent the Americans home with a loss.

He’s one of the game’s biggest competitors and he was helpless.

This Vancouver trip was different. He could control this.

With each playoff series the Bruins won, his urgency increased. The gap between Thomas and the Cup decreased.

“The deeper they got into it,” said Thomas’ wife Melissa, “it was like ‘Okay, we need to seize this.’ ”

On Wednesday night in Vancouver, he seized it. Once again, he was perfect, stopping every Vancouver shot in the biggest game of his life, a 4-0 win over the Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. He turned in a historic performance during these playoffs, taking home the Conn Smythe in a landslide.

As he celebrated behind her, Melissa tried to think of the last time her husband showed his nerves. She couldn’t recall.

Maybe their wedding night?

“I don’t know, maybe,” she said laughing. “That was a long time ago.”

He seemed perfectly calm during the finals. He seemed unflappable. He had us all fooled. Even his wife.

There were nerves—all kinds of them.

“I was scared. I won’t lie,” Thomas said after the win. “I had nerves yesterday and today. I faked it as well as I could and I faked my way all the way to the Stanley Cup.”

It was a moment that marked, not the conclusion, but what may be the pinnacle to the Tim Thomas story. The rise from college hockey to minor league hockey to European hockey to NHL star—Thomas kept rising.
And it could have all ended last year. It could have ended when injuries meant he lost his starting job to Tuukka Rask. It was less than a year ago that he was surrounded by trade rumors, that he avoided going to any website that might have speculation about his future outside of Boston.
He limited his online consumption to mainstream media that didn’t cover too much hockey because the last thing he wanted to see was his name in a headline. He didn’t want to see news about him being shipped out of town.

“I go to those type of websites so I don’t have to read about myself,” Thomas told Sporting News last June.

Last June. It seems like a lifetime ago now.

But you don’t count out Tim Thomas. You can't. Instead of waiting out a trade that seemed like an inevitability, Thomas worked harder.

“This past summer, it was tough,” his wife said. “He had to keep working. It was just tough, he didn’t really have a summer.”

The payoff came almost immediately. The Bruins opened the season in Prague, the home of his best friend Pavel Navrat, a former teammate at the University of Vermont.

Thomas went to Navrat’s old apartment in downtown Prague, surprising Pavel’s mom with a visit for the first time in 15 years. He gave her a ticket to the game and said he was playing for her. In his first start following offseason hip surgery, he was perfect, stopping every one of the Coyotes 29 shots.

It started with a shutout. It ended with a shutout.

Game 7 wasn’t Thomas rising to the occasion. It was him completing what he started in Prague—one of the best individual seasons by a goalie in NHL history.

“One of the best I’ve ever seen. From day one,” said teammate Mark Recchi. “I’ve never saw that through the course of the whole year.”

Nobody has ever doubted Thomas’ desire to win. But Navrat, who has seen his friend chase people down the ice after they scored on him, said Thomas raising the Cup comes because of maturity.

Thomas found a way to channel that competitive energy, those nerves he can finally admit existed, into an intense focus that opposing goalie Roberto Luongo never could find. No matter how much time he spent on the seawall.

“He’s been around. He’s learned how to channel it,” said Navrat on the Rogers Arena ice to celebrate with his best friend. “People take shots at him, he takes the high road. He says ‘I don’t care.’… That’s what he does. He comes back even stronger.”

He’s not perfect. With his family on the ice, he gathered them all together and grabbed the Conn Smythe trophy for a picture. They snapped a few until Melissa noticed he was showing off the back of the trophy.

Thomas laughed, turned it around and tried again. Might have been the only mistake he made all night.

Two trophies on one night. His long mission accomplished—unless someone suggests he can’t win another one. Hopefully we know better than to do that.

Every time somebody doubts him,” Navrat said before pausing to chose his words.

“I would like to see where all the doubters are now.”