"At the time, we didn't have a full complement of scholarships, so we were very careful who we gave our money to," said Gilligan, who coached Vermont for 19 seasons from 1984-2003. "We were praying and hoping that he was the real deal."
He was, starting a journey for Thomas that would lead to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, going from an unheralded recruit to a player who would drastically outperform the expectations placed upon him.
It was a theme that would define his career.
Tipped off by Bill Beaney, then the coach of Middlebury College, Gilligan saw enough on video to believe Thomas, who was playing high school hockey in Davison, Michigan, had the talent to potentially compete in the ECAC, one of the most competitive conferences in Division I hockey.
The gamble paid off for Gilligan as Thomas played four years at Vermont, including helping the Catamounts advance to what was then their first Frozen Four in 1996. After graduating, Thomas bounced around professional hockey before finally sticking with the Boston Bruins, where he would win the Vezina Trophy twice, and the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Award, voted to the best player in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in 2011.
Thomas would become a legend, the player most credited for bringing the Cup back to Boston, and a player considered one of the best U.S.-born goalies. As a result, he will be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 12, alongside Gary Bettman, Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson, and Krissy Wendell.
"He was never really given much in the early period," Gilligan said. "He was a regular-age guy that was kind of waiting and waiting and nobody realized, nobody gave him a shot until we did. That happened with the Bruins as well. He went to Europe, he spent a lot of time watching and he deserved every chance he got when they finally put him in.
"He proved to a lot of people that maybe he should have been grabbed earlier and used earlier."
Because getting to this point, with the hardware and the ring and the spot in the Hall, was a fight.
Video: Inductees for the 2019 U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame
His journey was not conventional by any means. He was selected by the Quebec Nordiques in the ninth round (No. 217) of the 1994 NHL Draft. He played for seven professional teams in five leagues across four countries before he got his chance with the Bruins, who signed him as a free agent in August 2002.
The first time Bob Essensa came across Thomas was at training camp for the Edmonton Oilers in 1998. Thomas had been signed as a free agent that June and was competing for a spot with Essensa, the incumbent backup.
Essensa would win the job while Thomas would, yet again, be overlooked. But even then, there was something about Thomas.
"He clearly caught my eye there because he was a battler," said Essensa, who has been the Bruins goaltending coach since 2003. "When things shook out and I was fortunate enough to stay there and he went down to Hamilton (of the American Hockey League), at the time I figured, this guy is going to be beating the door to get up here."
Instead, it would take Thomas four more years to finally make his NHL debut, playing four games for Boston during the 2002-03 season, and three more, until 2005-06, for him to become an actual factor.
He was 31.
And even then, it wasn't a slam dunk.
Former Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell recalled sending Thomas through waivers at one point that season, which in hindsight seems like an extremely risky proposition, except that as O'Connell admits now, he wasn't entirely sure what the team had.
O'Connell liked the season Thomas had with Jokerit in Liiga, Finland's top professional league, in 2004-05, when the NHL did not play because of a work stoppage. Thomas went 34-13-7 with a 1.58 goals-against average, a .946 save percentage and a stunning 15 shutouts.
Those numbers, as well as the fact that Thomas was coming into training camp with a full season of high-level hockey under his belt, made the goalie particularly appealing to O'Connell and Essensa.
Thomas would stick in Boston, where he would go on to play seven seasons followed by stops with the Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars in 2013-2014 after a season away from the sport. In 426 NHL regular-season games, he went 214-145-49 with a 2.52 GAA and .920 save percentage. He was even better in the playoffs, going 29-21 in 51 appearances with a 2.08 GAA and .933 save percentage.
"He became a 31-year-old phenom," Essensa said.
But it was in 2010-11 when Thomas became an all-time great. He had won his first Vezina in 2008-09, when he went 36-11-7 with a .933 save percentage and 2.10 GAA, and he did it again in 2010-11 with similar numbers (35-11-9, .938 save percentage, 2.00 GAA).
Then came the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Thomas led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks, posting a .940 save percentage and 1.98 GAA, where he outdueled future Hall of Fame goalie Roberto Luongo.
"Obviously, you know what happened in 2011," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "He was just standing on his head. Probably one of the biggest reasons why we were able to win."
The series culminated in a 4-0 win in Game 7 in which Thomas made 37 saves, earning his first, and only, Cup ring at 37 years old.
At the time, he said, "It's literally a dream come true."
Today, Thomas has left the game far, far behind him, not even watching the playoffs until this past spring, when he tuned in to see the Bruins make it back to the Cup Final before losing to the St. Louis Blues in seven games.
He is no longer involved in hockey.
"I'm honored to be receiving this recognition," Thomas said in his only remarks about the honor during a conference call announcing the inductees in September. He also thanked USA Hockey "for the experience that led to this storybook life."
But it was never easy. Not at any stage.
That is the common thread through Thomas' career, how he worked and strove and, yes, battled for every minute on the ice, for every achievement, to make that storybook life happen.
"The chip on the shoulder is a good way to explain how he went about things," Gilligan said. "He wasn't given a lot and he earned everything he got. He's a blue-collar kid from a blue-collar family. And everything just didn't come to him. It was earned."
That, more than anything else, is what current Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask learned. Rask, who backed up Thomas in 2011, knew that they would never play the same style in net, with Boston center Patrice Bergeron once labeling Thomas' unorthodox technique the "battlefly."
But the approach? That he could learn from.
"It's just that work ethic, that battle," Rask said. "His style got better -- give him credit, he was over 30 when he kind of redeveloped himself. Before that he was very aggressive and kind of all over the place, but he tamed down a little bit and made it work for him.
"For me, watching him when I was 19, 20, coming in, it's just the battle level and the energy he had on the ice was second to none."
That was what got him that scholarship to Vermont. That was what got him into the NHL. That was what made him into a Vezina winner, a Conn Smythe winner and Stanley Cup champion in his mid-to-late 30s. That is what allowed him to represent the United States internationally on several occasions, including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he won the silver medal.
It is what brought him here, to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.