For longtime hockey fans, one of the most familiar names associated with the Norfolk Admirals’ playoff run is that of Steve Thomas, the former 20-year NHL veteran that Steve Yzerman hired to be the Lightning’s Director of Amateur Scouting prior to the 2010-11 season.
During a normal regular season, Thomas’ role with the Lightning entails him traveling North America to visit the team’s top prospects, watching them play and offering them a level of mentorship that only a veteran of 1,409 NHL games can provide.
Thomas’ duties also include him spending half of his time alongside Jon Cooper and Mike Flanagan as a coach with the Admirals, which is a job detail that has put him behind Norfolk’s bench for the duration of the 2012 Calder Cup Playoffs.
“Most of our top prospects are here in Norfolk,” said Thomas. “Because of that, it’s advantageous for me to be in Norfolk as much as possible to get to know these guys. But I also traveled and visited each of our junior prospects at least twice this year. The last couple years, I have probably seen 50 or 60 OHL games per season where I’ve looked at every team’s draft-eligible players, while trying to go to as many of my son’s games in Oshawa as possible.”
Thomas’ son, Christian, was by no means an ordinary player when he skated for the Oshawa Generals.
Christian Thomas, a 2010 second-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, led Oshawa in scoring in each of the past three seasons. The younger Thomas’ junior exploits included finishing second in the Ontario Hockey League in goals (54) during the 2010-11 season, when he used his standout campaign to establish him and his father as the first father-son combination in history to have ever both had a 50-goal season in the OHL.
“I think we’re totally different players,” said Steve Thomas of his son. “We shoot the puck the same, but I was more of an up-and-down, grind-it-out type of player. I think my son has better skills than I had.”
The Admirals dropped the first game in the second-round series with the Whale 2-3 on Wednesday night in Norfolk.
Young Christian, born after his father’s eighth NHL season in the spring of 1992, finished his junior career this past March.
Now, in a script that couldn’t be written in Hollywood, Christian Thomas’ career has taken him to join the New York Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale, who are facing father Steve Thomas’ Admirals in the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“My dad coached me all the way up through minor hockey,” said Christian Thomas. “We have never been on opposite sides. It’s definitely going to seem odd when I pick my head up and see my dad standing behind the other team’s bench.”
“Coaching against him is going to be a little weird,” added Steve Thomas. “As fathers, we always want to see our kids play and do well at whatever they do. But I’m going to be treating these games like any other games. I won’t be cheering if he scores or anything like that. As much as it isn’t, I’m going to treat these games like any other games.”
But while the irony of father facing son is certainly present, from a Lightning standpoint, Christian Thomas is perhaps the best glimpse into the type of guidance that Steve Thomas can provide the Bolts’ top prospects.
Just as Christian Thomas said, his father coached him through his entire minor hockey career. For Christian, his father’s advice has helped lead him to playing on the Whale’s top scoring line, where he is quickly making an impression on the New York Rangers’ brass despite being just weeks into his pro career.
“My father played 20 years in the NHL,” said Christian Thomas. “He has so many tips and pointers that he’s shared with me over the years that only a 20-year player could know. I’m sure he tells the Tampa guys the same things he’s always told me.”
Because Christian Thomas, a nine-game professional-hockey veteran, has all the tools to have a long hockey career, it’s quite possible that Wednesday’s Game 1 was just the first of many hockey duels between father and son, as both appear likely to remain with their current clubs next season.
“We don’t worry about Stumpy (Steve Thomas’ longtime nickname) with any of this,” said Admirals head coach Jon Cooper. “Christian and he are both professionals and they work for different organizations now. They’ll be father and son for 22 hours a day, and opponents for the other two hours.”
When the Eastern Conference Semifinals conclude sometime in the next couple weeks, Steve and Christian Thomas will both go off in their separate directions again, with one’s season ending and the other heading to the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals.
After the series, Steve Thomas will continue in his role as one of Steve Yzerman’s most trusted advisors and Christian Thomas will continue his ascent towards what appears to be a career as an NHL player.
While their last names will always be the same, it is remarkably hard to make any other direct comparisons between Steve and Christian Thomas.
After all, Christian has one goal in nine career professional games, while Steve had 421 goals in 1,235 regular-season NHL games.
Although time will tell how close Christian can get to his father’s lofty numbers, the one area where the younger Thomas had to admit that he’ll never come close to his father is as an actor.
In 1986, six years before Christian was born, a 23-year-old Steve Thomas appeared alongside Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves as one of the fictitious Hamilton Mustangs players in the cult hockey movie, Youngblood.
While Steve didn’t have any lines in the movie, his face is clearly visible in several scenes, which more often than not, involved him serving as one of Swayze’s muscular sidekicks.
“I’d be lying if I said I haven’t laughed at my father’s role in Youngblood a couple times,” said Christian Thomas. “Especially the scene when he’s on the leg-press machine and gets slapped (by Patrick Swayze) with a towel. I guess not many sons can say they’ve seen that happen to their father. “
The next Thomas family reunion will be in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals on Friday night, when Steve’s Admirals attempt to even their series with Christian’s Whale at one win apiece.