Tim Thomas added another trophy to an already impressive case, winning the Vezina last week. He becomes the first Bruin to claim that hardware since Pete Peeters in 1983, and the first American since Jim Carey in ‘96.
But Tim Thomas’ trophy case isn’t impressive just because of the number of awards he’s won. It’s more the variety, and the difficulty in pronunciation. ECAC All-Star is easy enough on the tongue, but what the heck is the Urpo Ylönen trophy?
Tim Thomas’ road to the NHL veered far off the beaten path. Strangely enough, for the first time in his career the Vezina winner goes into next season as the clear cut #1 goalie. He’s played in minor leagues, defunct leagues, foreign leagues. He knows Scandinavia better than Erik the Red. And he’s always seemed to have an obstacle in his way. But all that apparently did was make him better and better.
Some of the cities Thomas has played in: Canton, NY; Hanover, NH; Birmingham, AL; Helsinki, Finland; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Cincinnati, OH; Stockholm, Sweden; Providence, RI; Hartford, CT; Worcester, MA; Gothenburg, Sweden; Kalamazoo, MI; Houston, TX; Hamilton, Ontario; Hamilton, NY; Turku, Finland; Orlando, FL; Salt Lake City, UT; Long Beach, CA; Kansas City, MO; Karlstad, Sweden; Portland, ME; Hämeenlinna, Finland; and that’s just the tip of the ice berg.
After playing high school hockey in his native Michigan and being relatively unrecruited, Thomas started all 4 years for the Vermont Catamounts. He earned several conference and national honors, was drafted as a sophomore by the Nordiques, and led Vermont to its first Frozen Four in program history. Thomas still holds school records for most career saves (3,950), most career wins (81), most career minutes (8,286), and most saves in a season (1,079).
After college, Thomas was still on the beaten path, but not for long. He played in 6 games for the Birmingham Bulls of the ECHL, then just 1 game for the Houston Aeros of the now defunct IHL. He then quite literally went off the map, all the way to Helsinki, playing for HIFK in the Finnish SM-liiga. In 18 games for HIFK, he registered an astounding 1.62 GAA and .947 SV%. His team won the Kanada-malja, the Finnish championship. Thomas was also awarded the Urpo Ylönen , Finland’s version of the Vezina. He’s the only American to win that award.
It must have seemed like just a one year thing to Thomas. He put up impressive numbers in a decent league. They were certainly impressive enough for the Edmonton Oilers, who signed him after his Finnish campaign. Thomas was sent to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, where he struggled for 15 games before once again going to HIFK in Finland. His numbers were still solid (2.23 GAA), and his team made it to the Kanada-Meljer finals once more, losing to TPS.
He gave North American hockey another try. And once again, he failed to impress. In 36 games for the Detroit Vipers (another IHL team), he had a 3.56 GAA and .892 SV%. Not bad enough to totally give up on him, but not good enough to merit promotion.
Once again, he went back to Europe, this time to Sweden and their Elitserien, playing for another alphabet soup team: AIK. He played well, eventually becoming a fan favorite, thanks in part to helping AIK make the playoffs.
It must have seemed as though the NHL would never knock on his proverbial door. He was drafted in 1994, graduated from Vermont in ‘97. It was now 2001, and the only leagues he’d succeeded in were in the East European Time Zone. He must have known that in General Manager’s offices across the NHL, when the name “Tim Thomas” came up, it was quickly dismissed as a guy who couldn’t cut it against potential NHL players. A guy who could thrive in the wide open spaces of European hockey, but perhaps struggled to see the puck in the tightly packed checking game of North America.
For the first time in his career, he didn’t go back to North America to play. He stayed in Scandanavia, shifting back to Finland, which must have started to seem more and more like home. He joined a team called Kärpät. He’d been signed by the Bruins, most likely because he’d be a cheap replacement in net. The Bruins’ business and hockey philosophy at the time was to buy low, sell high, with an emphasis on selling. Thomas was certainly low, and other Bruin goalies were about to be sold high.
He returned to America in 2002, playing for the Providence Bruins. In his circuitous and crazy career, he’d often return to cities he’d once played in, but now for different teams. In college, he played in Providence against Brown. He’d return to Connecticut, New Hampshire, Central New York, all as a Providence Bruin. For Vermont, he went to the Frozen Four in Cincinnati. He’d play there again as a Detroit Viper.
In 2002-03, Thomas was down deep on the Boston Bruins’ depth chart. Steve Shields, John Grahame, and Jeff Hackett took most of the net-time for the B’s. And in Providence, Thomas had to compete with Andrew Raycroft. But the buy-low, sell-high Bruins mentality went into action. John Grahame was too talented to stay, so was traded to the Lightning. And despite the number of names the Bruins had on their depth-chart, none of them fully satisfied the needs of the position. So Thomas got his first breath of NHL hockey, 4 games, 3 wins, 3.00 GAA, and a .907 SV%.
Thomas didn’t get any such opportunity in 2003-04. Andrew Raycroft was brilliant, winning the vacant #1 goalie’s spot. He was backed up by veteran Felix Potvin, and with the Bruins’ rolling to a 41-19-15-7 record, there was no need to give Thomas a shot at the NHL.
But Thomas finally had the chance to be THE man in Providence. He had a .941 SV% and 1.84 GAA for a mediocre team. He’d finally figured out North American hockey. And that’s when the Lockout happened so he went back to Europe to play.
By now, he was elite. It’s just that nobody outside of Helsinki or Rhode Island really knew it. A 1.58 GAA and .946 SV% for Jokerit in Finland won him the Kultainen kypärä (best player, voted by players), and Lasse Oksanen (best player) trophies. He set a league record for shutouts with 15. He led Jokerit to the finals.
In hindsight, we can see that by 2004-05, he was ready for the NHL. But back then, watching him excel in Finland was expected. His problems had been in North America. He also had a reputation for losing his cool. If he allowed two quick goals, for instance, he’d meltdown and let in three or four more with ease. He had a notorious temper. Perhaps he still does.
He seemed destined to be an NHL backup. The Bruins put 21 year old Hannu Toivonen ahead of Thomas on their depth chart, and once again, Timmy was relegated to the AHL.
He’d almost joined Jokerit for another season, and it was fortuitous that he did not. Contract problems with Raycroft, and an injury to Toivonen gave Thomas the #1 spot. He registered a respectable 2.77 GAA in 38 games. But next season, he was still behind Toivonen on the depth chart. The Bruins trusted a kid with only 24 games experience in Finland’s top league more than Thomas, who had 118 games in that league.
The Bruins may not have trusted Thomas, but he trusted himself. Thomas let his on-ice performance speak for him. As Toivonen struggled, Thomas was solid. He won the starting job, and played in 66 games. It was 2007, 10 years after graduating college.
But he’d have to compete for the starting job again in 2007-08. The Bruins had such little faith in him, they traded for veteran Manny Fernandez. Fernandez managed only 4 starts before succumbing to a season ending knee injury. Thomas took over the #1 spot, but was occasionally spelled for long stretches by Alex Auld, who played in 23 games.
Coming into 2008-09, the Bruins still didn’t have complete faith in Thomas. He was to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. Another young Finn, Tuukka Rask, was impressing in Providence, and was perhaps a cheap alternative to re-signing Thomas. There was also Manny Fernandez, earning $4+ million to be a backup must not have sat well with Bruins management. One again, Thomas had to win the starter’s job. And he did.
In his first 15 games of the season, Thomas recorded a pair of shutouts, 9 wins, only allowed 29 goals, and saved .940 of the shots he faced. The contest for the starter’s job didn’t last long. And the rest, as they say, is history. Best GAA, best SV%, Vezina Trophy, his second All-Star Game win (he hadn’t even been on the ballot), and finally, he knows for a fact that he’ll be the starting goalie in the 2009-10 season.
Hopefully this comfort doesn‘t breed complacency. After all, his career is littered with unknown futures leading to future successes. But this doesn’t strike me as a guy who is capable of complacency.