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The road less traveled: Tim Thomas' NHL comeback and Olympic ambition

Tim Thomas is hungry again. He sits just inside the door of the dressing room after his 14th straight start, barechested, balancing a pizza box on top of his goalie pads as he wolfs down an entire cheese-and-pepperoni pie.

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After a year off and at age 39, Tim Thomas made 14 straight starts for the Panthers. (USA Today)

The man took a year off from hockey at age 38. He left the NHL while playing at an elite level for an elite team, the Boston Bruins, and said he did it because he was drained.

Now he has returned at age 39, and he’s trying to find his form for a struggling team, the Florida Panthers. He has the energy to play night after night after night, hoping maybe, just maybe, he can return to the U.S Olympic team, too.

It’s surreal. But at this moment, he has won back-to-back games, and he’s smiling.

“The reality is, it is an NHL season, so there are ups and downs even if you’re really ready to play,” said Thomas on Saturday night after a 2-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings. “But you know, I am enjoying myself. You go through time periods possibly where things aren’t going well, where you have to remind yourself just how lucky you are to even be in this league and to be playing.”

He laughed.

“And that’s the attitude I have the majority of the time.”

[Sergei Bobrovsky Q&A: Blue Jackets goalie eyes Sochi Olympics]

From the outside, it never made sense. If anyone should have cherished his time in the NHL every minute of every day, it should have been Tim Thomas – not because he was lucky, but because of how long and hard he worked to get there.

You know the story. He was drafted in the ninth round, 217th overall. He went from college to the minors to Europe, thinking about becoming a schoolteacher at one point. He didn’t play in the NHL full-time until he was 32. Yet he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender twice, plus the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player and the Stanley Cup.

Why would he stop when he had come so far? Why would he retreat to his home in Colorado when he had one year and $3 million left on his contract in Boston – even if his relationship with the team was strained, even if a lockout was looming? He could have kept winning with the Bruins – they went to the Cup final last season without him – or he could have forced his way elsewhere.

He could have kept playing for the money. He could have kept playing for more than money. Remember that he grew up idolizing Jim Craig, the goaltender of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team, and he will tell you he dreamt of playing in the Olympics, not of playing in the NHL. He will tell you Sochi played a big role in his decision to return, that the possibility gave him “the extra motivation” he needed to know for sure it was what he wanted to do. If he wanted to go to Sochi, why not stay sharp – especially when his unorthodox style relies on athleticism and instinct? Why not stay in the conversation?

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Thomas was named playoff MVP after leading Boston to the Stanley Cup in 2011. (AP)

Well, two reasons:

— Whether there were other factors or not, Thomas was legitimately drained a year before he left the NHL. The day he brought the Cup to his childhood home in Michigan, he looked spent. He said then: “Winning the Stanley Cup takes more emotional, physical and mental energy than I would have ever believed. I mean, I’ve been tired after seasons before, but after this run, it’s a hard recovery.”

— Thomas has always been his own man and taken his own path, and he had beaten the odds before and excelled at an older age. His defining characteristic has always been how he battles. If he regained the energy to battle like he used to, why wouldn’t he think he could play like he used to? He said Saturday night: “You know, after the year off, I thought I’d be able to step right back in.”

When Thomas announced he was ready to play again, teams didn’t exactly line up to sign him. But the Panthers needed help (and needed to reach the salary floor), and they gave him a professional tryout and then a one-year contract with a $2.5 million salary and $1.25 million in bonuses. At best, he could be what he was. At worst, he could teach the youngsters about work ethic and professionalism. “You have to take risks,” said general manager Dale Tallon.

“I played with him before, so I knew what he was going to be like,” said Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell, who played with Thomas in Finland during the 2004-05 lockout. “He’s a guy that doesn’t lose it too quick. He’s smart.”

Campbell laughed.

“When you’ve played road hockey your whole life and you play road-hockey goaltender, you’re ready to go,” Campbell said. “We love Timmy for that.”

Thomas felt good at first. Then he suffered a groin injury. When he returned, he took a couple of games to get back on track and started feeling good again. Then he suffered another groin injury and sat out longer this time. When he returned, he took longer to get back on track, partly because he was guarded, not wanting to get hurt again.

“I think I was slower getting back to a type of form where I can be proud of the way I’m playing, and I think I’ve been getting closer and closer to that,” Thomas said. “I think the on, off, on, off, on, off messed me up more than the year off, honestly.”

Thomas has been on, on, on since the second groin injury. Not only did he start 14 straight games until he got a game off Sunday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, he played three back-to-back sets. He felt stronger the more he played. Now he’s moving more like he needs to move to play his athletic style, and he’s not worrying as much about getting hurt again.

“It’s not been picture-perfect yet, but I’m very confident that it will get better,” Tallon said. “It’s not like we’re 60 games in. It takes time.”

Thomas doesn’t have time, though, if he wants to go to Sochi. Team USA is scheduled to announce its roster Jan. 1. Jonathan Quick is injured, but he’s expected to return later this month and is a lock if healthy. That leaves two spots for the other six American-born NHL goalies. My list right now, in order, balancing experience and current performance: Ryan Miller, Cory Schneider, Ben Bishop, Jimmy Howard, Tim Thomas and Craig Anderson.

Is Thomas playing at an Olympic level? His overall numbers: 2.81 goals-against average, .908 save percentage.

“Over the last couple of games, it’s gotten closer,” said Thomas, who has allowed three goals on 54 shots over his last two starts. “I’m not that far off now, I don’t think. But that’s not my evaluation to make.”

It’s unlikely. But Thomas’ whole story is unlikely, and a lot can happen in three weeks – or leading up to the Olympics with injuries. And who knows what will happen after Sochi? “I think he can play at the highest level,” Campbell said, “and I think he can play for a while.”

And so Thomas is out there again, behind that birdcage of a mask, whacking guys in the crease, scrambling for pucks – resting on one knee way out between the faceoff circles when play stops, on the ice all alone. There is he is again, doing his thing, his own thing.

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