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Penguins' Thomas has always bled black and gold

Saturday, 02.21.2009 / 1:00 AM / NHL on NBC Spotlight

By Chuck Gormley - NHL.com Correspondent

Bill Thomas was 7-years-old and sitting in his suburban Pittsburgh bedroom with his 9-year-old brother, Dave, their eyes glued to a hand-me-down television sitting on their dresser.

They watched, mesmerized, as Pittsburgh Penguins captain Mario Lemieux hoisted the Stanley Cup high in the air, then handed it to Paul Coffey, Bryan Trottier, Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, Joe Mullen and the rest of the Penguins.

The date was May 25, 1991. Dave was dressed in his Penguins jersey. Young Billy showed his allegiance by wearing his … Calgary Flames jersey?

"I was definitely a Penguins fan," Thomas told NHL.com. "But I was a big Theo Fleury fan and I wore that jersey all the time."

Forgive him, Pittsburgh. He was just 7-years-old.

Eighteen years later, Bill Thomas is now skating where only one man, Ryan Malone, has ever skated before. Sunday, he'll be in Washington, as the Penguins face the Capitals on the NHL on NBC (12:30 p.m. ET)

Five years ago, Malone became the first Pittsburgh native to play in a game for the Penguins. Thomas, currently in his third stint with the Penguins this season, is now the second – on a technicality.

Thomas was born in Pittsburgh's Magee Women's Hospital, but grew up in Cheswick, Pa., about 12 miles northwest of the city limits.

Thomas isn't about to split hairs. He considers himself a true Pittsburgher. His parents took him to North Park for his first outdoor skating lessons and he played most of his youth hockey in and around the Igloo, where he vividly recalls tossing his hat on the ice following a Jaromir Jagr hat trick.

Heck, Thomas bleeds black and gold so much he was up in the stands with his buddies during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, hoping the Penguins could extend the Red Wings to a deciding game in Detroit.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Thomas' first steps toward becoming a Penguin actually occurred just a few bus stops from Civic Arena. A product of the Penguins' youth hockey program, Thomas played high school hockey at nearby Fox Chapel for two years before commuting to Cleveland to play midget hockey.

When he graduated from Fox Chapel, Thomas hoped for a college scholarship, but when none came, he played two seasons in the United States Hockey League with the Tri-City Storm in Nebraska. Winning the USHL championship and piling up 119 points in 120 games in two seasons was enough for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, an NCAA Division I program that recruited Thomas as a 21-year-old freshman.

"My plan was to go all four years and graduate with a business degree," Thomas said.

But after scoring 49 points in 39 games as a freshman, Thomas heard from an advisor who told him NHL teams had taken notice.

"He told me if I play as well or a little better as a sophomore I'll have the opportunity to leave school," Thomas said.

As a sophomore, Thomas picked up 50 points in 41 games at Nebraska-Omaha and after leading his team to a first-round loss to Boston University in the 2006 NCAA tournament, he received a phone call that changed his life.

"That night, I pick up the phone and Wayne Gretzky is on the other end," Thomas said. "I mean, how does anyone react to that? He told me to come to Phoenix to sign a contract."

A few days later Thomas was under contract and, much to his surprise, in a Coyotes uniform.

"I showed up for a game at 6:30 in a suit," he said. "But when I got there they told me Dave Scatchard had mono and I was playing that night. I didn't have time to think about anything. I'm being introduced to guys like Mike Ricci, Shane Doan and Mike Comrie. I mean, I they don't need to be introduced to me."

"It was a thrill for me. Thirty years from now I'll tell everyone I went top shelf on a breakaway and no one will no because they couldn't see it on TV."
-- Bill Thomas, on his first Penguin goal

Thomas could hardly keep his heart from jumping out of his chest during the national anthem, but Anaheim's Paul Kariya helped him come back to earth by scoring against him and making him a minus-1 on the score sheet.

In his haste to get ready for the game, Thomas said he managed to call his parents back home, who frantically tried to purchase the Arizona hockey package.

"My mom got in a fight with the guy on the phone because there were only 10 games left in the season and she had to pay the full price for the entire season," Thomas said with a laugh.

Thomas played in nine of the Coyotes' final 11 games and picked up 1 goal and 2 assists. He split the following season between the Coyotes and their AHL affiliate San Antonio Rampage, scoring eight more goals in 24 games for the Coyotes.

But when the 2007-08 season resulted in just seven games in Phoenix and 75 in San Antonio, Thomas knew it was time for a change. He returned to Pittsburgh, got caught up in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup Final, and received another surprise phone call July 1.

Penguins General Manager Ray Shero was offering a two-way contract.

 
"I had offers from two other teams and I had to decide whether I wanted to come back to Pittsburgh and play," Thomas said. "I knew it was a tough lineup and I'd be dealing with the pressures of being from here and the outside distractions of friends and family. But the Penguins are a team I grew up watching and I didn't want to pass up the opportunity."

Thomas opened the season with the Penguins, but after a two-month stint with the AHL Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins, he returned to Pittsburgh in January and recorded his first goal as a Penguin on Feb. 11 at home against the San Jose Sharks, much to the delight of his parents.

Or not.

As it turns out, high winds throughout Western Pennsylvania resulted in downed wires, and much of Wednesday night's game was unavailable in the Pittsburgh viewing area.

"It was the middle of the week and I told my parents to sit at home and watch it on TV," Thomas said. "I guess I'll have to try to score another one."

Having played on a third line with Max Talbot and Eric Godard in his other games as a Penguin, Thomas found himself on a line with Miro Satan and Jordan Staal and played a career-high 19:23 against the best team in the NHL.

"It was a thrill for me," he said of his game-tying goal that caromed behind goaltender Brian Boucher. "Thirty years from now I'll tell everyone I went top shelf on a breakaway and no one will no because they couldn't see it on TV."

No, but Thomas will remember. Just like he'll remember that Stanley Cup Final in 1991, cheering for the Penguins in that old Theo Fleury jersey.
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