Tim Thomas is officially done as a Bruin, and he couldn’t leave a more complicated legacy behind in Boston.
From an on-ice standpoint, the end of his time here shouldn’t move the needle. With Tuukka Rask both the present and future in Boston’s net, the chances of Thomas coming back to the Bruins after his season-long hiatus were as slim as slim could get.
The trade of Thomas to the Islanders on Thursday was primarily (and likely exclusively) a salary move. The Islanders wanted Thomas in order for his cap hit to make them compliant with the salary cap, while the Bruins got to free up $5 million in cap space.
It’s the end of an era that had already ended, but considering what Thomas did for the Bruins (and the feathers he would later ruffle), it’s hard to not stop and think of how the goaltending legend-turned controversial figure will ultimately be remembered.
Ask any sports reporter and they’ll tell you the same thing: Hockey players are the nicest professional athletes you’ll meet.
Tim Thomas isn’t like most hockey players. Among other things, he does a bad job of disguising how into his own statistics he is, and he’s both opinionated and outspoken (out-type-en?) on controversial issues. Now that he’s officially done here, a lot will be said and written about him, but let the record reflect that he is indeed a nice guy; he’s just different from most hockey players.
Not that it matters, but I generally don’t agree with Thomas’ Facebook posts, just like a lot of people don’t agree with one another on political issues. I didn’t much care for him snapping back that they were “personal” when asked about posting political statements hours before the Bruins got crushed in Buffalo. But in the ever-evolving world of sports journalism, I’m still pretty sure my job isn’t to care about Thomas’ political views.
How people choose to remember Tim Thomas’ time in Boston is completely up to them. If you want to remember him going from being a minor league/Europe journeyman to a two-time Vezina-winner, go for it. If you want to remember him for leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011, right on. You can remember him for blowing off the White House or for publicly siding with Dan Cathy after the Chick-fil-A chief operating officer called our generation “prideful” and “arrogant” for having the “audacity to define what marriage is about.”
“I don’t know what it will be,” Peter Chiarelli said when asked about Thomas’ legacy. “I do know that we don’t win the Cup without him. He was a character here, was a terrific goalie, was a great story and he had some interesting side stories that became distractions at times. I had to manage this stuff, but I can’t stray from the fact that this guy won two Vezina trophies and a Conn Smythe and was terrific when we won the Cup.”
From a hockey standpoint, that’s bang-on, and last year Chris Kelly took it one step further when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas had a Gretzky-like impact on young hockey players in New England. He pointed out that Wayne Gretzky’s time with the Kings in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s led to more kids playing hockey in California, perhaps explaining California natives Emerson Etem, Beau Bennet and Rocco Grimaldi all being high picks in their draft years. Given Thomas’ stardom in Boston, Kelly suggested more kids in New England would want to play goalie. That would be quite the lasting legacy.
Yet that won’t be how everyone sees it, and that’s fine. The argument here is that marriage equality is maybe three to four bazillion times more important than the Stanley Cup, so there’s nothing wrong with fans who hear Thomas’ name and think Barack Obama before they think Steve Downie.
For those who will remember him for what he did on the ice, there was a lot to like. Thomas’ 2010-11 season was historic, as he broke Dominik Hasek’s save percentage record with a .938 clip in the regular season. He also posted a career-best 2.00 goals-against average and nine shutouts in his 55 starts before keeping up the same pace in the playoffs (.940 save percentage, 1.89 GAA and four shutouts in 25 starts).
That postseason featured saves Bruins fans will never forget. There was his save on Brian Gionta in overtime of Game 5 against the Canadiens, among others, but the save of the year came when he used the paddle of his stick to reach across and bat down a bid from Downie in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The night before Game 6 of that Tampa series, a longtime hockey writer predicted that if the Bruins made it to the Cup finals, they would win because of Thomas. His rationale was that, knowing Thomas, he would look to the other end of the ice at the opposing goalie and own him for as long as the series lasted.
That prediction proved to be eerily true, as the entire hockey world saw Roberto Luongo crumble as he and the Vancouver Canucks grew increasingly obsessed with everything Thomas did. They didn’t like his aggressive style. They didn’t like him getting chippy with forwards in front. They didn’t like a lot about him, but he was in their heads. That showed when Thomas allowed five goals with two shutouts over the last five games of the Finals, while Luongo allowed 18.
"I was focused on stopping the puck and [Luongo] was thinking about my style,” Thomas told WEEI.com last season when reflecting on the series. “I realized that I had an advantage over him.”
Thomas was his own guy. Tuukka Rask said recently that he felt Thomas got a bad rap for being outspoken politically. He said Thomas never pushed his political agenda on his teammates, and that what could be perceived as a self-centered mentality was only an advantage for him.
“I think as a goalie, you have to be kind of like that,” Rask said. “Some guys might take it to an extreme. You’re part of the team, but you’re still an individual. You’re by yourself out there, so you kind of have to have that mentality to be kind of selfish in a certain way to be able to become a successful goalie.”
Thomas became a successful goalie and so much else in Boston. Things may have gone differently than anyone could have expected after he led them to the Cup, but different was the name of the game for Thomas.