Bill Thomas first skated on Mellon Arena ice as a sophomore at Fox Chapel High School. “It was an exhibition game -- against Shaler, I think,” he said. “It was pretty awesome.”
He was back here again last season, this time as member of the NHL Phoenix Coyotes, taking 20 shifts with one shot on goal and one blocked shot, glancing up briefly at the Stanley Cup banners, peering across the ice and seeing Sidney Crosby
Pretty awesome again.
And now this. Thomas, a 25-year-old right winger who played parts of three seasons with the Phoenix organization, signed a one-year contract with the hometown Penguins July 15. For a kid who grew up along Route 28, who skated with the North Hills Amateur Hockey Association and the Amateur Penguins, who cheered from the stands and in front of the television as Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr won Stanley Cups and scoring titles in the 1990s, the opportunity to come out of the home team’s runway in 2008-09 is, well, pretty awesome, indeed.
“Obviously, growing up in Pittsburgh, I always wanted to play for the Penguins,” Thomas said. “I watched on TV and went to as many games as I could, and when you get to see guys like Lemieux and Jagr while you’re growing up, it’s pretty exciting. I know the history here, and I know it’s a great hockey town. This is pretty amazing for me and my family.”
Emotions aside, though, the 6-1, 185-pound Thomas is here on merit – and he didn’t choose to sign with the Penguins merely because he can access some unique home-cooking in Fox Chapel. He was an all-conference player in college at Nebraska-Omaha, and he scored 24 goals and 52 points for Phoenix’ AHL affiliate in San Antonio last season, and he played 40 NHL games with the Coyotes over the past three seasons, getting a taste of the big time. As a free agent this summer, he was looking for a place where he could challenge for a spot on the NHL roster, maybe cement his place as a big-league regular. The Penguins seemed to be a perfect fit.
“They told me they were looking for one or two forwards to fill out the roster , and that they’d like me to come in and try to be one of those guys,” Thomas said. “And if not, I can go down to Wilkes-Barre and try to be one of the first call-ups.
“I didn’t want to make my decision just based on the fact that I’m from here. But there are some openings, and I think I’ll have a good opportunity. That’s really all you can ask. To have the chance to do this for your hometown team, though, is pretty amazing.”
Thomas started skating as a kid with the North Hills Amateur Hockey Association and eventually played for the Vipers and Amateur Penguins -- as well as the Fox Chapel JV and varsity. But he left home at 16 to play midget and junior hockey in Cleveland, and ended up skating for two seasons with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL.
He’d always knew he’d end up in college – “my parents told me that even if I played junior, I wasn’t getting out of that,” he said laughing – but for a while he thought that might mean playing club hockey at Penn State. For the longest time, he didn’t perceive himself as a pro prospect, or even a Division I prospect. It kind of snuck up on him.
“It really did,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t sure how much of an impact I’d have in college, or what kind of player I’d be. But I did pretty well my first year of college. After that, a couple of people told me, ‘you probably ought to get an agent.’”
At the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where he played in the CCHA against traditional hockey powerhouses such as Michigan and Michigan State, Thomas was conference rookie of the year as a freshman in 2004-05 and first-team all-conference as a sophomore in 2005-06. In his sophomore year, he scored 27 goals and 50 points in 41 games. And it was about that time that the NHL Coyotes came calling.
Thomas signed his first pro contract shortly after UNO was eliminated from the NCAA tournament in 2006, and he played nine NHL games late that season, chipping in a goal and two assists.
In his first full pro season, 2006-07, he collected 33 points in 47 AHL games with the San Antonio Rampage and eight goals and 14 points in 24 games with Phoenix.
He spent most of last season with San Antonio, going 24-28-52 in 75 games, but he also played seven more NHL games with the Coyotes, including the homecoming here in Pittsburgh.
“The big thing for me right now is consistency,” Thomas said. “I’ve gotten a taste of it. Playing the 24 NHL games in my second year helped a lot, because I got accustomed to what it takes, game in and game out. But I want to be able to take the next step.”
Will it happen in Pittsburgh? The Penguins were intrigued enough by Thomas’ potential that they called him on the first day of the 2008 free agency period on July 1. There are a handful of spots open for forwards heading into the 2008-09 season, and Penguins management sees him as a guy who can be in the mix.
If it happens, he could become the second Pittsburgh kid – behind Ryan Malone – to skate for the hometown Penguins.
It’s a long way from Fox Chapel vs. Shaler on the same ice, a long way from the Amateur Penguins and the North Hills Amateur Hockey Association. But Bill Thomas says he’s ready for the challenge.