Think about what Tim Thomas was the last time his skates were on the ice in Vancouver.
Think about him hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2011 for the first time, after clutching the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Think of his role as American hockey folk hero, turning a journeyman’s life into the starting goalie for the Boston Bruins, as well as a role on the U.S. Olympic team in the previous season. Think about how he was the blue-collar answer to Roberto Luongo’s anointed hockey royalty, the success to his failure, the tires to his pump.
Maybe in a different series, Luongo becomes the underdog, becomes the guy we all rooted for to finally win. Yet it was Thomas that helped the hockey world fall for the Bruins – no small feat for a Bostonian team – as they were the brutal underdog answer to the Vancouver Canucks' effete but nefarious collection of chronic underachievers.
Could any of us have foreseen how dramatically that script would be flipped in the next two years?
The two face off Tuesday night in Vancouver for the first time since June 15, 2011, as Thomas and the Florida Panthers visit the Canucks.
Luongo has started 18 games for the Canucks, with a 2.36 GAA and a .912 save percentage.
Thomas has played as well as one could hope for, after a year layoff and in back of the chaos in Florida, rather than the steady Bruins defense: 4-6-0, a 2.87 GAA and a .907 save percentage. He’s surrendered more than two goals just twice in 11 games.
But off the ice, they’ve all but reversed roles since 2011.
Because of what Thomas did and what was done to Luongo.
In 2011, Luongo was, frankly, unlikeable.
His elephantine, cap-cheating contract had critics. Fans rooted for his continued playoff meltdowns, just to see what the post-series reaction would be. Even his gold medal victory, which should have been the ultimate redemption story, was tainted with a late U.S. goal before Sidney Crosby “bailed him out.”
Against Thomas, Luongo couldn’t stop a puck in Boston and came off as petulant when he criticized Thomas for not stopping the lone goal in Vancouver’s 1-0 Game 5 victory, saying his style of goaltending would have prevented it. When he took heat for the comment, Luongo famously said: "I have been pumping his tires ever since the series started. I haven't heard one nice thing he had to say about me."
But again, times have changed, as have their respective reputations. Thomas’s decision not to attend the Boston Bruins’ celebration at the Obama White House lit that fuse, leading to public scrutiny of his politics and accusations that he had hurt the Bruins' chemistry. The accessible, champion of the people suddenly morphed into the distant, reserved and bitter outsider.
It wasn’t as simple as discovering a player didn’t share their politics. Fans were taken aback by Thomas doing something selfish, putting himself before the team; it was the complete antithesis of what we witnessed in the Stanley Cup run. The backbone of the Bruins had become its clown nose.
The pressure and criticism grew too much for Thomas, so he quit. He quit the Bruins, quit the NHL, quit the public life. He disappeared.
Luongo thought about quitting too, actually, with regard to his contract.
His contract had prevented the Canucks from dealing him away after handing Cory Schneider the crease in 2012. He considered working with the NHLPA to have it voided earlier this season, before staying the course.
When he stood in front of cameras and said his contract “sucked,” the fans connected with him. When the Canucks jerked him around and treated him with a general lack of respect despite his accomplishments, the fans felt for him. His brilliantly self-deprecating humor – be it on his Twitter feed or his TSN appearances – had us laughing with ‘LOLuongo’ for once.
So now it’s Luongo that has the support of the masses, as his surreal conflict with the Canucks was resolved with Schneider’s trade. It’s Luongo whose quirky tweets become stories, whose personality has been embraced by fans as an example of a player who “gets it.” The Canucks remain a team that’s not exactly huggable, and John Tortorella’s prickly presence doesn’t help; but Luongo’s the guy you find yourself rooting for, despite his team’s antics.
Like many probably did with the Bruins and Thomas two years ago.
Maybe there’s still another redemption story in the cards for Thomas, although I think that would require a level of candor about his sabbatical he’s not comfortable with revealing. I’ve suspected that the jarring juxtaposition between being hero of the people and right-wing pariah was too much for him to handle.
Luongo, meanwhile, has handled the transition from punchline to man of the fans deftly.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall that Thomas would prevail in Game 7 and the Bruins would be champions in Vancouver. But the paths the two have taken since have been anything but predictable, and not just because Thomas was the one who ended up goaltending for Florida, after all.