The People's Champion: Tim Thomas and His Rigid Road to Success

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The People's Champion: Tim Thomas and His Rigid Road to Success
(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Tim Thomas was once a nobody.

Just another failed goaltender who would never be quite able to break into the NHL and instead spend the bulk of his career in and out of minor leagues, crawling his way over international waters to play in Finland's premier hockey league.

Forgotten if ever remembered.

Upon being drafted 217th overall in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft by the Quebec Nordiques after his freshman year, Thomas continued to play college hockey for the University of Vermont for the next three years where he would go on to post a 81-43-15 record, a 2.70 GAA, a .924 save percentage, as well as to this day remaining second all-time in the NCAA Division I in career saves with 3,950.

However, Quebec never called.

After college, Thomas had brief stints with the Birmingham Bulls of the ECHL and the Houston Aeros of the IHL before leaving North America and opting to play in Finland's SM-liiga for HIFK.

In the SM-liiga, Thomas would find success and be awarded the Urpo Ylönen trophy as the league's top goalie in 1998 after winning a championship with HIFK. The Flint, Michigan native was soon recognized by the Edmonton Oilers who would sign him as he made his return to North America in an attempt to further pursue his non-existent NHL career.

Edmonton left him out in the cold.

Instead of soaking in NHL glory, Thomas began his 1998-'99 season with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL before deciding to cut his losses and go back to Finland to play for HIFK where he still remained a big deal for bringing the team their first championship in 15 years.

In 1999-'00, Thomas made his second return to North America, however this time he did so without attracting the interest of an NHL team and played for the Detroit Vipers of the IHL.

The following season, Thomas packed his bags again for Sweden to play for AIK of the Swedish Elite League where he quickly became a fan-favorite after leading the team to its first playoffs in four years.

And then an opportunity arose.

Thomas joined the Boston Bruins organization in 2001 but decided to stay in Europe where he would see more playing time in the SM-liiga, this time as a member of Oulun Kärpät.

In 2002, Thomas made his third return to North America as a member of Boston's AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins, before getting a small taste of the major league when he was finally called up to play in his first NHL game for Boston at the age of 27.

And a small taste was all he needed.

Thomas played the next season with Providence before leaving for Finland again during the NHL lockout in 2004-'05. While playing for Jokerit, Thomas became the first player on the team to win the Kultainen kypärä award for best player as voted by the players since Teemu Selanne in 1991 and also walked away with the Lasse Oksanen trophy for best player.

If he was ever going to play in the NHL, now was the time.

While still under contract with Boston, Thomas continued to play for Providence in hopes of getting called up by the big club again and after coincidental injuries to both Andrew Raycroft and Hannu Toivonen, it became his turn to show and prove.

Thomas made the most of his opportunity and solidified a spot on the roster after an impressive first season with the Bruins where he exceeded expectations playing in 38 games, posting a 2.77 GAA, with a .917 save percentage.

Raycroft was soon traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Thomas received a three-year extension.

Initially, Toivenen was set to start for the Bruins at the beginning of the 2006-'07 season but after he struggled with his new duties, Thomas stepped in and stole the show for a second straight season, leading him to win the Boston Bruins 7th Player Award in back-to-back seasons thus becoming the only goalie in team history to win the honor twice.

Everything finally seemed to click for Thomas as he entered the 2007-'08 season a new man with new confidence in his abilities especially with Toivenen now out of the picture. But as always in his career, adversity faced him once again, this time in the form of another goalie.

Manny Fernandez.

Fernandez was signed by the Bruins during the 2007 offseason and many hockey analysts believed he would be the starter with Thomas backing him up.

And then another injury.

As if it was his destiny to take over as the starting goalie, Thomas again embraced the role after Fernandez went down with his early-season injury and backstopped his way to his first NHL All-Star game as well as led the Bruins to their first playoffs since the 2003-'04 season.

And then there was this season.

Thomas took the starting job in Boston and with a very impressive 36-11-7 record, a 2.10 GAA, and a .933 save percentage. He led his team to their first Eastern Conference title since the 2002-'03 and made his second appearance as an NHL All-Star.

After the season ended with the Bruins falling out in the second round of the playoffs, Thomas went on to win the William M. Jennings Trophy with Fernandez for the fewest goals allowed by team goaltenders as well as the Vezina Trophy for the NHL's top goaltender and a few words during his acceptance speech said it all.

"I've been more worried about getting my name on a roster than getting my name on the Vezina Trophy."

At 35, Thomas came from nothing and battled his way to the NHL to become not only one of the league's top goaltenders but the top goaltender with a Vezina Trophy now added to his resume. He had to come back to North America four times before being able to call Boston home upon signing four-year extension this year.

Tim Thomas was once a nobody, but now he is a somebody and that somebody has defied all the odds and silenced all the naysayers who said he would never make it.

The true essence of an underdog.

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