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Expectations vs. Reality: Bruins career comes to close for Thomas

February 9, 2013, 1:09 AM ET [12 Comments]
Ty Anderson
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Have you ever seen the movie 500 Days of Summer?

There's always been that one scene that’s stuck out to me -- the famous “expectations versus reality” split-screen sequence. Featuring the movie’s main protagonist attending the party of a woman he’s still in love with, the stark contrast of his expectations, full of happiness, joy, and love, is met head-on by the soul-crushing reality of his situation, one that left him alone, miserable as the reality of his situation sunk in. That, in Hollywood form, embodies everything that makes up the Tim Thomas the Bruin’s story.

Well, except for one tiny, microscopic detail: The script was flipped. For a while, anyways.

Arriving on the Boston hockey scene as the organization’s third goaltender, the expectations for a journeyman who experienced little to no success out of a yearlong stint in Finland were almost nonexistent, but as fans sat in for a seven-year ride that nobody can forget, Thomas’ reality became akin to that of any Disney-produced fairytale.

Through hard work and a never-say-die attitude, Thomas outworked the downright terrible Andrew Raycroft and made once-prized prospect Hannu Toivonen completely expendable. With a smile on his face and a fiery style of play in the crease, Thomas, in an era of confusion and frustration for every disenchanted fan of the Black-and-Gold, became the anti-Bruin. Despite skating for a rebuilding B’s team, Thomas, sporting a different mask and set of pads almost every game in a 38-game 2005-06 campaign, showed everyone something no other Bruin did; He gave a damn.

However, as the cheers grew with a blue-collar crowd behind him, Thomas’ tenure seemed to be coming to a close after a 30-win, .907 save-percentage season under Dave Lewis. His character tested by new general manager Peter Chiarelli with the club’s acquisition of perceived No. 1 goaltender Manny Fernandez the following summer, Thomas dealt with the adversity the only way he knew how -- he worked even harder to silence his critics. And as Fernandez’s knee lasted just four games in 2007-08, Thomas was back as the club’s primary masked man.

Working under the Claude Julien system, the veteran brought the B’s back to the playoffs, and began to catch lightning in a bottle with a 2008-09 campaign that saw No. 30 win 36 of the 54 games he played in, and ended with an emotional Thomas accepting his first ever Vezina Trophy.

“I never really allowed myself to believe that I might win, because it seemed like such a faraway dream,” a visibly emotional Thomas said of the honor, shaken by the adoration and respect that had finally come his way after eluding him throughout his turbulent NHL career. "You know when you look at the names on the trophy, they're legends and it's humbling to even be mentioned in the same sentence. I've been more worried about getting my name on a roster then I have about winning the Vezina Trophy.”

But the dream seemed to come to a crashing halt when Thomas lost the starting job to the upstart rookie, Tuukka Rask. In a disappointing year for just about every member of the B’s, Thomas became the scapegoat of the Black-and-Gold’s struggles by year’s end. Frequently being booed off the ice, his shirts were replaced by “Fear the Rask” tees, and the exit strategy seemed to be in place following the club’s unforgettable choke-job against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round of the playoffs. Nearly traded to Tampa Bay, San Jose, and even Philadelphia, as Flyers’ GM Paul Holmgren’s unwillingness to trade center Jeff Carter to Boston became the lone reason that the trade was nixed, Thomas scrapped the Black-and-Gold off his pads and came to training camp with shaking the awkwardness of the summer off his shoulders with a smile and a ‘stache.

Oh, and the best season by any B’s goaltender in the modern era.

Beginning his season with an unreal October that saw him surrender just three goals in six games, stopping 182 of 185 shots (.984 save-percentage) thrown his way, there wasn’t much stopping Thomas on his motivated road to redemption. Finishing the year with 35 wins and an NHL single-season record .938 save-percentage, there was seemingly nothing that could stop Thomas’ run. “Never,” defensemen Johnny Boychuk told me at the end of the 2010-11 season when I asked if there ever was a doubt when it came to Thomas’ style of play. “He’s Timmy.”

That’s all he needed to say.

For as unorthodox as Thomas was, he was a constant on the way to the Bruins’ first cup in 39 years. Winning three Game 7 contests of the way, becoming the first goaltender to do such, and tire-pumping aside, Thomas earned the Conn Smythe he was awarded on Vancouver ice. Becoming a local hero, etching himself into Boston hockey lore forever, the fanfare continued on into the club’s banner-raising night the following season, when Thomas’ skate around Boston ice with the Cup raised above his head earned an ovation that practically brought the roof down.

Fans’ chants of “Tim-my Tho-mas” were the norm, and it seemed as if nobody would protest the building of a Thomas statue outside the Garden, so long as it featured a stop sprawling save in double-overtime against Brian Gionta and the Montreal Canadiens or the goaltender delivering a check to the Canucks’ Henrik Sedin.

As Bobby Orr was to the B’s teams of the late-60s and early-70s, Thomas was to this generation of Boston hockey; He was the icon that you’d tell your kids and grandkids about, someone whose on-ice antics, breathtaking “How did he possibly stop that?” saves, and fits of undersized-goaltender-rage would leave you with some of the most entertaining hockey stories around the table.

He was, well, Timmy, and make no mistake about it, he put Boston on hockey’s map.

And that’s how the Bruin-turned-Islander should be remembered.

When it came to Thomas’ politic takes, I never cared. It wasn’t my job to care about who he voted for. I focused in and reported on hockey, and hockey was something that the Flint, Michigan native was pretty damn good at. He was the best, in fact. In my years of watching the Bruins, and while twenty-one years isn’t exactly a heaping portion of Black-and-Gold, I’ve never watched somebody as mind-effingly skilled and entertaining as Tim Thomas.

“Tim can be a character and he can also be principled on a lot of different fronts. I couldn’t tell you, he is, was a heck of a goaltender. He helped us, greatly, win a Cup. I’d liken him sometimes to that left hand pitcher that is a little quirky, but throws 200 plus innings and wins 18 to 20 games a year,” Chiarelli said yesterday when pressed about Thomas’ potentially burnt bridge in Boston. “He’s valuable to the team and can be a little quirky.”

(Here comes the flip-side of that expectations vs. reality thing I referenced earlier...)

Thomas’ biggest quirk, however, was wearing his political affiliation on his sleeve (and the back of his mask, too), and it was without question his biggest downfall in what became an unfortunate fallout in Boston. One of two American players from the 2011 Stanley Cup team, the diehard republican’s decision to skip out on the club’s Jan. trip to the White House stole headlines and provided fodder for the rumor mills for the rest of the Bruins’ (disappointing) end to the 2011-12 campaign.

Taking to his Facebook page like an angered teen would, Thomas explained his ‘anti-Obama’ stance to his subscribers, and continued to be one of the league’s loudest mouths via Facebook. He took stances against the crumbling fiscal state of the country, stood with Chick-Fil-A in their fight against same-sex marriage, and then went silent.

That wasn’t before the B’s goaltender allegedly broke the cardinal rule of the Boston locker room and stepped on the Spoked-B located in the center of the room, though. His sequel even allegedly included referring to his teammates as ‘them’ instead of ‘we’, and the 38-year-old topped it all off with the announcement that he’d be taking the 2012-13 season off. It’s our last memory of Thomas as a member of the Boston Bruins.

It’s a cold reality that’s left Thomas nameplate in the Boston room scraped off and replaced by Anton Khudobin, not the expectations that seemed to pit ‘TT’ as a career-long Bruin. A reality that’s left the TD Garden without one final go ‘round of cheering No. 30 in Black-and-Gold, crushing their expectations of chanting his name once again. A reality that ends his Bruins career as one measured in Facebook likes and punchlines, not as a favorite to have his number hang from the rafters following his retirement.

“I don’t know what it will be. I do know that we don’t win the Cup without him,” Chiarelli said when asked about Thomas’ legacy in Boston. “He was a character here, was a terrific goalie, was a great story and he had some interesting side stories that became distractions at times. I had to manage this stuff, but I can’t stray from the fact that this guy won two Vezina trophies and a Conn Smythe and was terrific when we won the Cup.”

Beyond the obvious accolades and drought-ending playoff run in 2011, I’ll remember Thomas as the goaltender that left me awestruck on a nightly basis.

I’ll fondly recall the time that Thomas dropped then-Canadien forward Andrei Kostitsyn after he boarded B’s defensemen Aaron Ward, not the time he walked away from a press conference when pressed about his political preferences.

I’ll laugh when I remember saying “Oh, look at Timmy!” when he tried to charge down towards the Stars’ Marty Turco to fight him in a heated line-brawl in a Nov. contest between the Stars and Bruins in 2008, not poke fun at his decision to devote more time to his family.

I’ll think of the save he made on Steve Downie in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals and shake my head in disbelief (still), not the time that he told us all that, “That’s my personal life and not about the Boston Bruins or the game of hockey.”

I’ll remember Thomas for what he was -- The ultimate competitor.

“What I’ve learned from Tim is that compete, you really have to look at the compete in goalies,” Chiarelli told reporters when asked about what the former Bruin netminder taught him about goaltenders. “ There’s the size, the technical stuff, all that stuff, but if the compete’s there then that’s a position where you can work your way through it and Tim had more than the compete but his compete was outstanding and it actually watching him progress and watching the compete, it made me look at goalies in a different light.”

For nearly a decade, Thomas gave his all to the Bruins.

He didn’t pout and demand out when they traded for Fernandez or when they made him a backup to Rask. He didn’t sulk, he didn’t whine to the media, and he didn’t quit. He fought. Harder than he did the previous time, too. Thomas’ career was embodied by the fight; The fight to get to the NHL, the fight to stay in the NHL, and the fight to become the best in the NHL. And if you ask me, Thomas isn’t done fighting.

While he won’t be back this year, I have no doubts that he’ll be back in the league, be it with New York or any other club, and that he’ll probably be even better than he was the year before. Even with a year of rust on the pads, and with a resume built of proving people wrong, you’d be stupid to suggest that Thomas couldn’t or wouldn’t rebound from this.

Of course, these are merely my expectations. The reality of Thomas' eventual return, however, will be something that's sure to captivate fans in Boston, and could even hit the point where even the biggest Thomas hater finds themselves tipping the cap to what they witnessed throughout Thomas' tenure in this league, both in and out of a B's sweater.

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