Bill Thomas, a Fox Chapel native, was on the cusp of earning a roster spot with his hometown Penguins. Before the two-game series against the Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh had to make one more cut to reach the NHL limit.
However, Thomas wasn’t worried. The 25-year-old winger had been sent to the minors before and had a simple philosophy regarding situation.
“I just kept showing up until someone told me not to, and no one ever told me not to,” Thomas said.
When Pittsburgh assigned winger Janne Pesonen to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Thomas officially earned a roster spot. He became the second Pittsburgh-bred player – following Ryan Malone – to suit up for the Penguins when he logged 5:34 of ice time during Pittsburgh’s 3-1 loss to Ottawa on Sunday.
“It’s incredible for me,” Thomas said. “I’m excited. It’s the first time that I’ve made a team out of camp. I have to find a role that I can fit into that will help this team win.”
Lemieux’s arrival marked a surge in popularity for the sport. Thomas idolized Lemieux, now his boss, and grew up a Penguins fan like so many other youngsters in Western Pennsylvania.
“I grew up watching the team,” Thomas said. “When Lemieux started, hockey really started in the city. It expanded, they built more rinks. They built a rink five minutes from my house. The team did well and everyone was excited. ”And a History Started
George and Karen Thomas bought Bill his first pair of hockey skates at the age of 3, but only after he proved to his mother that he could skate from blue line to blue line without holding onto the boards. Bill and his older brother, David, learned to skate at a rink in the North Hills.
“To be truthful, we just went for something to do on weekends,” George said. “We wanted to find an activity for them to do. Then one day their mother turned to me and said they wanted to play hockey.”
Bill started playing mini-mite level as a defenseman in the North Hills Hockey Association at the Ice Connection. The Thomas boys arrived with their new hockey skates, but nothing else.
“We actually had to borrow all the equipment from people that were on the team,” Karen said. “Their first outfits, all their uniforms, everything was borrowed. They said we wanted to keep playing so when the new season started they got their own equipment and a history started.”
Bill and David attended Fox Chapel Area High School. When Bill was a sophomore and David was a senior, the two played on the same line for the Foxes varsity team.
“Playing with my brother was awesome,” Thomas said. “It was the first time that we ever played together.”
The next season Thomas was recruited by his Amateur Penguins coach, Chuck Keefer, to play for the Cleveland Barons of the North American Hockey League. Thomas and Keefer’s son, Casey, played for the Barons while still attending high school in Pittsburgh, driving to Cleveland three times a week for practice and for games on weekends.
"I wanted to do it so my parents said go ahead," Thomas said. "They were also so supportive of whatever decisions I made. They were very influential but let me find my own way."
In all, Thomas played three seasons with the Barons before moving on to the great Midwest.The Cornhusker State
Kearney, Nebraska, the midpoint between Boston and San Francisco, is home to 27,000 residents. It’s also home of the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League. The Storm drafted a young prospect named Bill Thomas in 2002.
I’d never been there in my life and had no idea what it’s like. It was different at first. Definitely not anything I was used to. - Bill Thomas
“When I got drafted I thought that Tri-City was in Minnesota,” Thomas said. “I looked it up and it was in Kearney. I’d never been there in my life and had no idea what it’s like. It was different at first. Definitely not anything I was used to.”
In his first season with the Storm, Thomas scored 29 goals and added 21 assists for 50 points. The following year Thomas led Tri-City in scoring with 31 goals, 38 assists and 69 points, finishing third in the league’s scoring race, and earned team MVP.
Thomas also etched his named in Storm history, establishing records for most career goals (60-tied), most assists (38) and points (69) in a single season and a 12-game scoring streak. For his efforts, Thomas was named second team All USHL and an All Star representative.
The University of Nebraska-Omaha offered Thomas a scholarship. He wanted to continue his education so he accepted and would play his next two seasons with the Mavericks.
“I always wanted to go to college,” Thomas said. “I just didn’t know how to get there. This was the perfect opportunity. The games were exciting. We got to go to Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Lake Superior.”
Thomas excelled in his newest setting. He earned CCHA Rookie of the Year and was named to the All Rookie Team and All Conference second team after posting 19 goals, 26 assists for 45 points. Next season he registered 50 points (27+23) and the NHL scouts started to notice.Howling Breakthrough
Before puck drop between the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators, Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky asked Bill Thomas a question in the locker room.
“Hey, how about playing your first game tonight?”
Bill Thomas’ first NHL game wasn’t supposed to happen. Well, not the way it did anyway. He arrived in Phoenix on a Monday after signing with the club. He was told that he wouldn’t play until that weekend against the San Jose Sharks. But a last-minute scratch forced Gretzky to dress Thomas against the Predators.
George and Karen Thomas sat on a couch 2,000 miles away in Fox Chapel. They were watching the Coyotes broadcast when the on-air talent announced that “highly touted Bill Thomas is going to be on the ice.”
The Thomas’ watched their son skate 14 shifts and log nearly 11 minutes of ice time. The next time they saw Bill play in the NHL, they weren’t sitting on their couch, but in the stands at the HP Pavilion at San Jose. The Coyotes flew Bill’s parents and sister, Katherine, to San Jose to watch the game.
“It’s surrealistic,” Karen Thomas said of the experience. “You put all this time in and went to all these hockey games, got up early and drove all over the place, now you’re sitting there watching him play (in the NHL).”
Thomas’ rise to the NHL was quite abrupt. Consider that he played his first NHL game four days after playing his final college game.
Thomas and his agent had been in contact with several clubs during his second year at Nebraska-Omaha but he couldn’t sign an NHL contract until his college season was over.
The Mavericks played Boston University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Before the game Thomas’ agent told him, “If you lose, you’ll probably have to make a decision the next day on where you want to go, what team you want to go to.”
Thomas and his agent agreed that Phoenix was the best fit for him out of the interested parties. The Coyotes promised Thomas that he would play right away and aggressively pursued him.
Thomas’ whirlwind weekend began when the Mavericks lost their match-up with Boston University, 9-2, on Friday. He signed with the Coyotes on Sunday, arrived in Phoenix on Monday and played his first game on Tuesday.
Thomas spent the next two seasons splitting time between Phoenix and its minor league affiliate San Antonio Rampage. During the 2007-08 season, many of his family and friends purchased tickets to the game between Phoenix and Pittsburgh at Mellon Arena with the hope of seeing Thomas. But he played almost exclusively in San Antonio that year and the prospect looked grim.
“We weren’t sure if that was going to happen,” Karen Thomas said. “They sent him down. He was playing in San Antonio so I sold my tickets. I sold them on a Thursday. I got a call Friday night and Bill said, ‘They just called me up. I’m coming to Pittsburgh.’”
Luckily, she was able to retrieve the tickets. The arena was filled with friends and family to see Thomas play and the memory will stay with him forever.
“I was so excited, skating around seeing friends, family,” Thomas said. “That was really cool because I didn’t know that I would have an opportunity to play here. I knew this rink was going to be gone in a little while. That may have been the only opportunity that I have to play here.”Homecoming
Thomas had mixed success in his tenure in Phoenix. After three seasons in the Coyotes organization, he played in 40 NHL games, scoring nine goals and eight assists for 17 points. Thomas and the organization parted ways following the 2007-08 season.
Once again, he had a few teams interested in his services. But when Penguins Executive Vice President and General Manager Ray Shero asked if he wanted to tryout with Pittsburgh, he jumped at the opportunity.
I was from here and didn’t know if I would ever have this opportunity again. I looked at it as an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up. - Bill Thomas
“I was from here and didn’t know if I would ever have this opportunity again,” Thomas said. “I felt confident that I could come in and play well. I looked at it as an opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.”
“It was very special,” George Thomas admitted. “Bill’s been away from us for about eight years now. We’ve had to get a radio feed, the AHL package, whatever we could do. We had to catch as catch can to see him. Now we could drive down (to Mellon Arena) with friends and see Bill play.”
“With the Amateur Penguins we would be traveling every week up to New York and Toronto,” Karen Thomas said. “Then we were traveling to Cleveland, Michigan. Then we were flying to Nebraska three times a year to at least catch him play some games.”
Bill's parents have been watching their son play hockey since he was 3 years old. The traveling is something that the family embraces. The joy of watching their children play sports was worth all the miles, hours and games.
“It’s really not sacrificing,” Karen Thomas said. “It’s for the kids, when they decide to do sports the parents actually have a good time doing it. Some of my best friends came from hockey.”
Thomas spent the last nine years of his life in six different cities with six different teams in five different leagues, only to end up back home.
But Thomas isn't resting on his laurels. He understands that just because he made the Penguins’ roster out of camp, doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed a spot there for the rest of the season.
“I have to keep working hard,” Thomas said. “This is the highest league so the speed and skill level here is incredible. If I can find somewhere where I can help out the team and give me an opportunity to stay here, that would be nice.”