In a few months, Tim Thomas will be getting the ultimate playoff test he's been searching for over the course of a lifetime. The Eastern Conference's front-running Boston Bruins count on the soon-to-be 35-year-old goaltender to retain the form that has made him one of the more remarkable late-blooming stories ever in sports.
For Thomas, there's a quiet confidence on his face today that has replaced the worry lines that long been hidden only by the goalie mask he wears. Who would blame him for wondering if he would ever get that dream job we all pursue. For the Flint, Mich., native, it has been a long and winding road to proving himself to the rest of the hockey world after he starred for the University of Vermont back in the early 1990s, when he earned ECAC First-Team honors with an amazing 26-7-4 record, 2.34 goals-against average and three shutouts.
"Yes, it's true that my parents pawned their wedding rings to pay for me getting a chance to play in a Pee Wee camp when I was just a teen-ager," Thomas said matter-of-factly to another of those you've-got-to-be-kidding-me story lines. "They did get the rings back."
"Impossible odds?" Thomas said in explaining a vagabond life that took him and his family from Birmingham to Houston to Helsinki, Finland, to Hamilton, the Detroit Vipers, AIK Solna in Sweden, Karpat in Finland -- a sort of road map of cities where Thomas honed his trade until he got his first chance at the NHL at age 29 with the Boston Bruins in the 2002-03 season -- even if that chance lasted only four games.
There's obviously no pretense to this veteran netminder who had to wait even longer -- until he was 31 -- to become a regular in goal after 2 1/2 more seasons as the Bruins' minor-league goaltender at Providence. But there he was in Montreal, this impossible odds story, at his second straight All-Star Game. And this year, he didn't have to wait until Marty Brodeur bowed out of the game to get an invitation.
"Don't forget my name wasn't on the ballot ... but I still made it," he added. "How's that for helping your story about all of the questions I've faced in my career?"
Thomas' 20-5-4 record at the All-Star break with a league-best .934 save percentage, 2.09 goals-against average and three shutouts is testament to how deserving he is to be in Montreal.
"This time my parents are here," Thomas said with that "golly-gee" smile on his face. "Last year, my mom (Kathy) had just undergone her third chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer and dad (Tim) and her couldn't travel to Atlanta. She's been my rock forever. She's who I got that stubbornness from."
Stubborn? You bet. Thomas swears he never thought about quitting, even if it meant playing out his career in Finland or somewhere else around the world.
Every good story has conflict. For Tim Thomas there are plenty -- and it starts with the fact that so many of his saves are conflicting to the way goalies are taught to stop the puck. But he gets the job done. And that's where the battler in this masked man comes out, where style points are not given for the correctness of each save.
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Thomas said. "If I cared about the criticisms I've heard over the years, I wouldn't still be in this profession. Maybe I'd be a car salesman like my dad was when I was growing up and my uncles still sell cars. Second thought, I'd probably be a teacher. At Vermont, I had a history minor."
Thick skin? You bet. But ...
"When the lockout hit in 2004-05, I thought my NHL dream was dead," he told me. "I went back to Finland, signed a pretty good contract, in fact, to play with Jokerit."
Thomas paused a moment for reflection before continuing, "I won an award for being the top goaltender ... and that was against at least five or six pretty good NHL goalies who were working abroad during the lockout."
Once the lockout ended, the Bruins came calling again, inviting him back to the organization. Thomas had already signed another deal with Jokerit, but the contract allowed him to leave for an NHL job. After much deliberation, Thomas decided to give it one more try.
"Actually, I had made peace with myself that I was never going to get that chance in the NHL," Thomas recalled. But there was a stronger force that drew him back to Boston. "Yeah, my parents wanted me back in the States. They said it was where they felt I belonged. To be honest, they really wanted their grandchildren back home. So I took the chance."
The wave of questions for the acrobatic goaltender continued. More queries about this comeback story.
"In my mind, it isn't like in the last couple of years I'm playing better than I have in my whole career. I look at it like I'm just continuing a pretty good resume. It's not like I went from a guy who couldn't play street hockey to playing in the NHL, that's my point."
"My dad always told me that all dreams are possible," Thomas said with a twinkle in his eyes.
More dreams? Like a Stanley Cup? And ...
"My dream since I was five years old wasn't to play in the NHL, it was to play in the Olympics. I remember watching Jim Craig help the United States win the gold medal. That made a huge impression on me. Jim Craig is the reason I decided to be a goalie," Thomas added, thinking out loud that there is a better than average chance that Tim could be in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics representing his country -- likely joining Buffalo's Ryan Miller and perhaps injured New York Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro. "That would be awesome. I hope I get the chance."
No one would dare check Tim Thomas' birth certificate now, would they? Nor would anyone question his late draft status -- ninth-round pick, 217th overall, in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.
"There's a kinship we have as players when we meet a player who had to battle for everything he gets in this business," St. Louis Blues goaltender Manny Legace recently said of Thomas. "Obstacles are a part of the game that we have to overcome and Tim is one of those guys who has kicked aside every one of his obstacles."
"It may seem like a long time ago to some, but Tim was the same competitor he is today when we played together at the University of Vermont," Tampa Bay winger Martin St. Louis added. "He plays with so much passion. I've always felt not taking no for an answer is the attitude you need if you want to go places.
"He didn't have an easy road here. But he found a way."
Concluded Thomas, "How would I have guessed four years ago that at 34 I would be playing my second straight NHL All-Star Game?"
And it just may be that among all those questions I heard while talking to Tim Thomas that that query was the best, because it came from a guy who knew what he wanted and persevered long enough to convince the Boston Bruins to give him that opportunity to carry the goaltending load.