Tim Thomas has always been known as somewhat of a slow starter, and it was no different for the Bruins goaltender this season.
Coming off his second straight All-Star selection, coupled with winning his position’s highest individual honor -- the Vezina Trophy -- Thomas was lugging around his fair share of lofty expectations.
Not that he was really worried about it.
“My job is still the same as it’s always been: stop the puck,” said the unaffected Thomas.
The 35-year-old was coming off his most accomplished season as a pro, and he came to training camp armed with his typically offbeat, thoughtful way of coping.
But the affable B’s goalie wasn’t as well-prepared when life came calling with one of its unpleasant surprises.
Two years after Thomas’ mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and went into remission, Thomas' life was once again touched by the dreaded disease. His father, Tim Sr., was diagnosed with colon cancer. The senior Thomas had the cancerous portion of his colon removed last Monday at Salem Hospital and is recovering nicely following the procedure
The good news: Doctors believe they’ve eliminated the cancer from his father’s body and chemotherapy won’t be a required course of treatment.
The bad news: Thomas was afraid to visit with his dad in a weakened state immediately following surgery last week once teammate David Krejci was diagnosed with the swine flu and there was even the faintest possibility he might have it.
“My dad just had surgery and I feel fine now, but I certainly don’t want him to get an infection when he’s in this major healing process,” Thomas said last week while discussing his father’s improving condition. “That’s when I think this strain of flu is its most dangerous.
“He had part of his colon removed. He was diagnosed four or five weeks ago. But they got on it quick, they think they got it all and he’s not going to need any kind of chemotherapy. It’s just a pretty major surgery and he’s really sore right now, but long term the prognosis is really good. So that’s awesome.”
The surgery finally took place last Monday – a day before Thomas stopped 24 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Red Wings in his home state of Michigan – after it had twice been postponed on Bruins game days. One of those days was a Tuukka Rask start against the Flyers, but the other postponed surgery day was a game Thomas actually started.
“One surgery was postponed because the surgeon had a pinched nerve in his neck and the second surgery was postponed because of a scheduling conflict,” Thomas said. “So he ended up having the surgery on a non-game day, and that made it a lot easier for me. I would have been too stressed out if it happened the same day we were having a game.”
In spite of the stress, the B’s goaltender is playing his best hockey of the season.
Thomas has allowed two goals or fewer in five of his last six games and boasts a 2.44 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage after a statistically “off” start to the season. Like the rest of the team in front of him, Thomas has tightened up his game, and that goes hand-in-hand with the players in front of him also finally snapping into place within Claude Julien’s defensive system.
One thing Thomas has easily banished from his thoughts was the pressure to repeat his career season of 2008-09, when he posted statistical high watermarks in most categories and reached the highest individual pinnacle an NHL goaltender can dream of. A goalie that was everything on his varied hockey resume from the ECHL Birmingham Bulls to the immortal Detroit Vipers had his name etched forever on the Vezina Trophy.
The one thing that eludes Thomas now is the Stanley Cup dream that died on the vine last season when Hurricanes villain Scott Walker poked a flying puck past the veteran goalie in overtime of Game 7.
“Winning the Vezina kind of makes it easier to focus on team goals, even though I always had that focus to begin with,” Thomas said. “I don’t need to be recognized individually like I was last year, even though that goes hand-in-hand with the team playing well in front of me.
“But this year it seems like winning that award makes it even easier to focus on the team. Now it’s all about checking off team goals along the list rather than anything for me.”
The biggest challenge for Thomas entering the season — before his father was diagnosed with cancer — might have been the $5 million-a-year contract extension he inked last season. He was no longer the Little Goalie That Could, and instead became an All-Star goalie ... who also was among the highest paid in the league. Thomas spoke about wanting to prove people (such as general manaager Peter Chiarelli) right for investing so much into his inspirational story, and the concern was there that he might overextend just a little too much to justify the dough he’s now making.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a position to be overpaid, so that’s certainly a little different,” Thomas said with a smile. “It doesn’t matter how much I’m getting paid. It’s still about the same thing: stopping the puck.”
That kind of conscientious approach isn’t much of a surprise for a goaltender who still remembers the first $25,000 paycheck earned with HIFK Helsinki as a pro goalie in the Finnish Elite League coming out of the University of Vermont 12 long years ago.
Julien has seen the salary pressures negatively impact players before, and he actually pulled Thomas aside prior to the season to discuss it. The coach simply wanted to reassure his All-Star netminder that he got the money because of the effective way he was already playing. There was no need to alter or improve anything about his game, and there was certainly nothing to prove to anyone else. That’s a difficult concept for a goaltender who's had to prove doubters wrong his entire career.
“I’m one of those guys who believes that the contract that a player has is something that they’ve earned in the past. That’s why they got it in the first place. They don’t have to prove anything. It’s as simple as that,” Julien said. “I just want to make sure players don’t put added pressure on themselves. Some players feel like when they get added money that they have to do more, and that’s not the case. Those were what my conversations with Timmy were about.
“I know how Timmy is. He’s one of those guys who wants to justify everything. He felt like he had to justify that he belonged in the NHL and all through his career he’s felt that way. I wanted to make sure this wasn’t one of those times. He’s been a good goaltender and a Vezina Trophy winner. He’s earned that. I told him, ‘Just keep giving us what you’ve always given us.’ ”
Thomas already has done that and is now paired with Rask to potentially give Boston its best goaltending duo in recent memory.
Julien equated things with Thomas to an experience he went through during his days coaching the Canadiens, when defenseman Craig Rivet felt the same way.
“One of the examples was Rivet in Montreal," Julien said. "From the past, I had always been told that he always had tough first halves [of seasons] and took him a while to get going. So I sat down and picked his brain a little bit and found out that he was one of those veteran players that always felt like he should be doing a little more and always showing more leadership.
“Basically, he would always try to do too much. The second half was always when he would have some success when he started to tone things down a little bit. I just told him to approach things the way he always did in the second half of the season, and he had his best start ever in his career. Sometimes it’s just letting players realize what’s best for them when all these expectations and contracts and other things are floating around them.”
A pair of things will remain certain about Thomas going forward no matter what’s going on around him. On the ice, he’s going to continue to wage competitive war against pucks with the audacity to invade his space between the pipes, and off the ice he’ll spent countless hours of his free time raising awareness and money to fight a disease in cancer that has once again closely affected his families’ lives.
“My mom had breast cancer two years ago,” Thomas said with a nod of determination. “So I’ll just keep doing those cancer [awareness] commercials every single year.”