Friday, June 19, 2009

Day One-Hundred Fifty-Nine: Tim the Tank

Last night's NHL awards show was...underwhelming. (Really, most things about the NHL--except for the product itself--are generally underwhelming) Nevertheless, there were some very nice moments.

Y'all know I'm a sucker for those nice inspirational don't-give-up-on-your-dreams stories. Boston Bruins goaltender Tim "the Tank" Thomas has one o' them stories, and it was capped off last night with Thomas winning the Vezina Award given to the league's best goaltender every year. (I've linked to his acceptance speech at the bottom of this post)

Thomas, an American-born (yay!) player, was drafted in 1994 by the Quebec Nordiques. Rather than making the jump to pro, Thomas played out his full four years of eligibility in college. By the time he had his degree, Quebec had become the Colorado Avalanche and they had some guy named Patrick Roy in net, so a goalie was pretty low on their priority list, so Thomas played in the minor leagues, including a brief stint with the Aeros in 1997-98. After awhile, it was becoming evident that there wasn't a place for him in the NHL, so Thomas transferred to Finland where he could get some more playing time. His team won a Finnish League Championship that first season.

The following summer, Thomas signed a contract with the NHL's Oilers and played a handful of games with their AHL affiliate before heading back to Europe and finishing as the runner-up in the championship round. It was now 2001, and Thomas signed with the Boston Bruins, but again there was no place for the Yankee goalie in any of Boston's North American affiliates, so he spent another year in Europe. He finally settled back into the AHL full-time in 2002-03, finally making his NHL debut and playing four games that season before spending the next year, again, in the minors.

After that, there was more minor-league hockey, more Finnish league hockey (where he won the award for the league's best player), and occasional NHL callups due to injury, where Thomas always performed well, but not well enough to land him a starting job with the Bruins. Finally, after 2006, the B's traded starting goalie Andrew Raycroft to Toronto (for a "Goalie of the Future" type prospect) and Thomas became an NHL regular 12 years after he was drafted. He began the 2006-07 season as Hannu Toivonen's backup, but since Toivonen wasn't very good, Thomas eventually took over as the team's starter, and when Toivonen was traded, it looked like things had finally turned in Thomas' favor.

That is, until the Bruins swung a big trade to get Manny Fernandez, another starting goalie, from Minnesota, and Thomas was the backup once again.

Early in the 2007 season, Tim Thomas finally, finally, finally got his big break, and unfortunately it came at Fernandez's misfortune as the new B's starter went down with a serious injury and the net now belonged to the Tank. And oh, did he ever take advantage of it. Thomas was an NHL All-Star that season, and he played so well that Fernandez was relegated to a backup role, even after he returned from injury. Thomas finally earned his first big fat contract and started this year as the main guy in Beantown, backstopping the Bruins to the best record in the Eastern Conference and, well, I've already said he won the Vezina, so that ruined a bit of the suspense.

The great thing about Thomas is that he knows how great he's got it. He's a family man, a good guy, down-to-earth. He's a hard worker and a strong role model for the kids in the Boston area to look up to. It was neat watching him win his awards last night; in an era where young hockey players are being encouraged to be rock stars, Thomas was genuinely humble as he accepted his hard-earned accolades.

Two clips: first, Thomas and Fernandez co-win the Jennings Award (given to the goalie tandem that allows the fewest goals in a season, skip to about 1:33 to get to the speech)

Second, Thomas' speech after winning the Vezina (skip to, like, 2:00 or something. Great speech)

Great story, great guy, great nickname (?), great goalie, and moogly...yeah.