Bill Thomas may dress in the visitor’s locker room Monday night.
Yet, it will still feel like home to him.
Thomas, a winger for the Coyotes, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Fox Chapel and will make his professional debut at Mellon Arena – the place he grew up watching hockey.
|Bill Thomas |
“It’s very exciting. I grew up here; my parents still live here in the same house,” he said. “I have been to this rink so many times watching games. To finally be out here in an NHL jersey and be able to skate out there is pretty incredible.”
Thomas, a Fox Chapel High School graduate, played two seasons for the Tri-City Storm in the USHL before heading to the University of Nebraska-Omaha. In 80 games in two seasons, he racked up 95 points (46+49) and helped guide the team to its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
That success drew plenty of attention and Thomas signed as a free agent with the Coyotes on Mar. 27, 2006. He made his NHL debut that season and tallied three points (1+2) in nine NHL contests.
The right winger spent most of last season in the American Hockey League with the San Antonio Rampage. He had 33 points (13+20) in 47 games, but spent 24 games with the Coyotes. He had 16 points (8+6).
Thomas began this season in San Antonio and tallied 18 points (9+9) in 24 games. Phoenix recalled him on Saturday and he played in the Coyotes’ 3-2 loss in Detroit.
“It’s very exciting; It’s always a thrill to be recalled,” he said. “The team in San Antonio was doing really well and that pays off for everyone. When you’re doing well, everyone takes notice. I think it really helped out.”
It took him some time to get used to the speed and quickness of the NHL once again.
“The speed was quick, but it took a little to get used to it,” he said. “Once you get thrown back into it, you either sink or swim and I am just going for it.”
Now, he gets to play in an arena he made many visits to as a young Penguins fan.
“I remember watching with my brother when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in Minnesota. That was really exciting for us,” he said. “It was just really exciting to be around those times when my brother and I were growing up. With Lemieux and Jagr and Francis and Larry Murphy and Ulf Samuelsson – it’s exciting to be back in the same building right now.”
One of those former Penguins – Samuelsson – is an associate coach with the Coyotes. And, the head coach is Wayne Gretzky. The team’s goaltending coach is legendary goalie Grant Fuhr – all players Thomas watched when he was younger.
“Whenever I left school and came and met them for the first time, I was so nervous. But, he’s your coach and you have to get through that,” he said. “Those guys are great hockey players and very smart hockey players. It’s an honor just to meet them. To play for them is even better.”
Gretzky is happy to see how Thomas responds to his latest NHL opportunity.
“He’s a young guy and we like what he brings. It’s an opportunity for him to make a statement,” he said. “We know he is excited to come home here in Pittsburgh. He’s worked his way up through the ranks and I hope he responds well, which I am sure he will.”