DAVISON, Mich. -- The smell of the field's freshly-cut grass reminded Tim Thomas of the up-downs he used to sweat through when he was a football player. The sight of his old hockey coach brought back all the lessons Tom Barrow used to give Thomas about patience. The familiar faces in the crowd included some of the people he used to work with at Domino's when he was a pizza delivery boy.
His old house is still standing, still owned and occupied by a cousin. The grocery store Thomas used to work at is gone now, but the parking lot at Woody's Produce where he played street hockey day and night still remains lit for another dreamer.
If only someone could find those old nets made of 2 x 4s and chicken wire. If only they could talk.
Thomas didn't arrive in Davison until November of 1988. He had some family living in town and he didn't come from far so his transition was easy as he enrolled in the high school as a freshman and began to live a humble, normal and relatively quiet existence in this humble, normal and relatively quiet town.
Twenty-three years later, Thomas returned as the star of a day created solely to honor him and his hardware, the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy and Vezina Trophy. But, Wednesday was about way more than a hero's welcome and an opportunity to name a bridge after him and shower him with proclamations, street signs and keys to the city.
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Wednesday was about everything and everyone Thomas knew and appreciated before he was a somebody in this world.
Essentially, Wednesday was about the real Tim Thomas, the one that hides behind an ultra-competitive mask in the NHL.
"When I was looking up in the crowd here I saw a lot of people I hadn't seen in years, and in a certain way I had forgotten that they had supported me," Thomas said shortly after being honored at Davison High School's football field in front of thousands of the community's proud residents. "These were people I worked at Domino's with delivering pizza with. I saw people I played softball with and was friends with. It was great.
"I was nervous before this because I'm always nervous before anything that centers around me, but once I got up there and saw all the people, so many that I recognized, I felt more comfortable and I was happy I was able to bring this day here, to bring the Cup home."
Home is a word Thomas currently associates with Boston and now Colorado Springs, where he lives in the offseason. But, since Tim and Kathy moved to Davison with their boys, Tim and Jake, this place has always been where Thomas' heart is.
"This is where family is," Thomas told NHL.com and NHL Network from a backyard barbecue in his honor thrown by his cousins, Matt and Tami Thomas. "This is where it started."
Thomas' story from the time he was at the University of Vermont in the mid-1990s until now is well-documented. The highs and lows he experienced are things of legend, a story you would think is only fit for a semi-believable Hollywood script.
Vermont to Finland to the IHL to the AHL and back to the IHL before going to Sweden and then again to Finland before finally, finally the Boston Bruins gave him a chance -- his ride to the top of the NHL would have made many men quiver and possibly even give up too early.
"One of my uncles about 13 years ago, when I couldn't find a job in North America, had no doubt that I would win the Stanley Cup one day," Thomas said. "I'm glad he knew."
Davison, though, is where it all truly began. It was in this town that Thomas learned his perseverance and that patience his old coach Barrow tried to instill in him. It was right here that Thomas learned to appreciate that being humble and being quiet are good attributes, and working hard for everything you want will allow you to eventually earn everything you desire.
"It's kind of the American dream so to speak, which I think a lot of people have kind of given up on," Thomas said. "I'm proof that you still can. If there is anything that the younger generation watching here today takes out of this, it's that it's up to you. You can do nearly anything you want if you're willing to work hard enough and long enough at it."
For roughly five years before the second chapter of his hockey story began in Burlington, Vt., Thomas did everything in Davison.
He played football, hockey and baseball -- lived the normal high school life.
"At times early in my career I wondered if that slowed down my path to hopefully the NHL, but looking back it was definitely the right decision," Thomas said of being a three-sport athlete and being a normal high school teenager. "I was able to enjoy those years and play different sports. If anything it developed my love for hockey because it made me realize I loved hockey more than the other sports. Maybe that's the reason I'm not burned out now at 37."
Thomas developed a friendly rivalry with the senior goalie that was ahead of him on Davison's depth chart during the 1989-90 season.
Al Sumner was in the crowd at Cardinal Stadium on Wednesday.
"When they said, 'This is this new guy,' I honestly didn't think much of it," said Sumner, who still lives in Davison and owns a landscaping business. "I was a senior and he was a sophomore. I grew up playing with him in various rinks, so I knew him and I wasn't too worried. But, obviously that didn't turn out too well for me."
"The relationship was good enough that when he was done playing goalie, when he turned it over to me, he gave me his glove and that's what I used for most of the rest of my high school career," Thomas added.
Barrow was set to retire after the '89-90 season, but he stayed on for two more, "because I knew we were going to clean up with Tim in the nets."
"I had friends that would come watch our games," Barrow said. "They would say, 'We know Timmy can put on a show for us.' "
"There wasn't a lot of technique being taught in goaltending back in those days, but I just saw some of the pictures and I'm on my belly or flat out," Thomas said. "It kind of looks like the way I play today."
Thomas' goal was to earn an athletic scholarship that would put him through college, but that didn't come for a few years so after high school he tried out for a local junior team, the Lakeland Jets.
He made it as the third goalie.
"I actually switched to forward for a while so I could at least be dressing and be on the bench for the team," Thomas said. "There actually came a point where my dad gave me the letdown speech, but I was so determined that I was going to make it in hockey one way or another that I basically told him where to go. And, I never talked back to my dad."
Thomas made some money to help him buy equipment and hang with friends by selling apples door-to-door.
"I was actually making good money," he said. "I could go out for three hours and make $75."
He picked them up at an orchard about 30 minutes east of Davison. He would store them in his car and then drive west about an hour to attend some community college classes.
"I'd go there for a couple of hours, then drive 45 minutes down by Detroit, close to my practice arena and sell apples down there," Thomas added. "I'd go to practice at generally 5 o'clock and by 6 I'd be going back up here to Davison to deliver pizzas from about 7 to 11. That's just what you did. You have to scrape by. You have to be creative and do different things."
It all helped Thomas hone the skill of perseverance that he's shown throughout his NHL career. It was that perseverance that echoed through the League last season when he not only earned his starting job back from Tuukka Rask, but became the best goalie in the world and an absolute legend in Boston, not far from the pedestal that Bobby Orr still stands on.
"Character is something Timmy takes great pride in," his father, also Tim Thomas, told NHL.com and NHL Network. "They say, 'Don't doubt Timmy,' but I've know that since he was a little boy. He just doesn't give up. He won't give up. I knew he'd be successful. If he wanted to be a car salesman, he'd be the No. 1 car salesman."
Only Thomas simply wanted to be a professional hockey player. He realized that right here in Davison, where he began working toward that ultimate goal.
On Wednesday afternoon, under sun-drenched skies that would soon give way to a thunderstorm, Tim Thomas, national superstar, Stanley Cup champion, Conn Smythe winner and two-time recipient of the Vezina Trophy, smelled the old grass again.
He was typically humbled by the aroma, flattered by the attention.
"This guy makes me cry," Barrow said, fighting back tears as he spoke of Thomas. "He's changed so very little."