Thomas never gave up on ‘American dream'
DAVISON, Mich. – If you know Tim Thomas(notes), you know the legend of the wedding rings. Yes, it's true. When he was 7, his parents hocked his mother's precious jewelry because they needed money to send him to a select tournament. They had two boys in travel hockey. Times were tough.
But did you know Thomas peddled apples? That he worked at a grocery store and a car lot? That he delivered pizzas for Domino's? Did you know he played high school football and baseball, too? That he caught the winning touchdown pass on Homecoming? Sure, it was just the first score of a 36-0 blowout, and it was the only catch of his career, according to his father, Tim Sr. Still, his father said with a smile, "What other hockey player can say that?"
What other hockey player can say any of this?
Thomas' rise has been well-chronicled: how he climbed from college to the minors to Europe to the NHL, then won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender in 2008-09, lost his starting job with the Boston Bruins the next season, then had hip surgery, won the Vezina, the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP and the Stanley Cup last season.
But the details are richest and most meaningful here in his hometown, where Thomas returned with his hardware Wednesday. He held the Cup over his head as he crossed the Davison High football field, setting it between the Vezina and Conn Smythe before hundreds of fans in the stands.
This is where his fierce competitiveness first came out. This is where he learned persistence and first explored his athletic talent. This is the place that helped make the man, and he said kids need hope and inspiration that this kind of place can help make more like him.
"I think the Midwest work ethic was highly instilled in me growing up," Thomas said just miles from the empty auto factories of Flint. "I was also taught that if you want something bad enough and you're willing to work towards it that you can get it. It's kind of the American dream, so to speak, which I think a lot of people, actually, to be honest, have kind of given up on. But I'm proof that you still can. If there's anything that the younger generation that's watching here today takes out of it, it's that it's up to you."
As Thomas received gifts and proclamations from politicians – and even had a little bridge named for him – the Davison High hockey team stood in the background. Steven Arterburn, 17, a senior defenseman, wore a black construction helmet he adorned with Bruins logos; stickers of Thomas and his trophies; and a red light on top that flashes, he said, "for the other team's goalie."
Asked what the tale of Tim Thomas meant to him, he said: "If you keep working hard, you can go anywhere."
More than anything, Tim Thomas wanted to play hockey. Whether it was on the ice or the street, whether it was with a puck or a tennis ball, he always wanted to be in goal. Ken Morrow came from Davison, but Thomas idolized another member of the "Miracle on Ice" team that won gold at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics: goaltender Jim Craig. He joked that he and his buddies wore out the parking lot of the store across the street from his house.
"Even as a little kid, it was personal for Timmy to get scored on," said Tim's uncle Philip Thomas, wearing a Bruins championship hat and a black shirt with the silhouette of the Stanley Cup and the words: "Jesus Saves … Tim Thomas saves MORE!" As a 6- and 7-year-old kid, he was emotionally distraught."
Thomas' parents supported him, even going as far as hocking those wedding rings for hockey. He didn't have to buy his own gear until after high school. But they pulled him from travel hockey at age 11 because it was just too much, and he always worked because, he said, "it was just something you did."
His family ran fruit stands. So he started helping out around age 8 and started going door-to-door around age 12. He never gave up, even when a door closed on him – a pattern that would carry through his hockey career. His father said if no one answered but he knew someone was home, he would knock on the window. He would take seven bushes of apples and turn them into $50 in three or four hours.
"Most people his age were working at a store making a little bit of money," his uncle said. "He was working a few hours a week. He was such a good salesman that he was making lots of money selling apples."
But Timmy did work at a store. He also worked at a car lot like his father – washing the cars, making sure they started in the morning, putting air in the tires, learning the business. When he was old enough, his father bought him an old car for about 90 bucks. He sold that car for about $175, and his father bought him another one. That continued until he had a four-by-four pickup he used to deliver pizzas. Thomas said he saw some of his former Domino's coworkers in the crowd Wednesday.
"He was very self-sufficient," his father said.
Most top players don't play high school hockey. They play for elite travel and junior teams instead. But Thomas' experience allowed him to be a normal kid and prepared him for his abnormal career track. As he spoke at one point Wednesday, he stood on the field where he had practiced football ("pushed me past my limits of what I thought I could do"). He pointed to the baseball field ("probably sharpened my hand-eye"). He said he played on the tennis courts, too.
"All those things add up to help make you a better athlete, and I'm known as an athletic goalie," Thomas said. "You don't get that way by accident."
Tom Barrow, Thomas' coach at Davison, tried to channel his competiveness and harness his athleticism. In addition to the high school hockey, he used to pick up Thomas early every Sunday morning and take him to scrimmage with former pro and college players. He taught him not to stomp his feet and break his stick after every goal against. He tried to teach him to be patient and not roam so far out of his crease, though that has remained, well, a work-in-progress.
"I think he failed somewhat at that," Thomas said, laughing.
Thomas was born in Flint. He moved around the area growing up – from Mt. Morris to Davison. He returned to the area in the off-seasons as he moved up the ranks – ECHL, IHL, AHL, Finland, Sweden. He would see family and friends. He would hunt and fish.
When he was maybe 30, he ran into an old teammate, Al Sumner, who was the senior goaltender when Thomas arrived at Davison as a sophomore. Sumner said at that point Thomas was uncertain how much longer his career would last. Thomas thought he might become a schoolteacher.
The rest is history. Thomas finally landed a steady NHL job at age 32, and he just had one of the best seasons of any goaltender ever while turning 37. Which is why he came home to thank those who believed in him and to inspire others to believe in themselves, taking the Cup to his church in the morning and high school in the afternoon, before heading off for a gathering at his cousin's house.
"Nothing fancy," Thomas said.
You might wonder what Thomas possibly could do next. Even though he has spent much of the off-season secluded at his place in Colorado, he seems spent. He said the summer has been overwhelming.
"Winning the Stanley Cup takes more emotional, physical and mental energy than I would have ever believed," Thomas said. "I mean, I've been tired after seasons before, but after this run, it's a hard recovery."
The Bruins will face the same issues all defending champions do – fatigue, satisfaction, distraction. They will be the hunted in a league that is becoming known for parity. Thomas also shares the crease with a young, hungry backup, Tuukka Rask(notes), who has taken his job once already.
But the Bruins return relatively intact, and why would anyone give up on a guy who never gave up on himself?
"Whenever there were really challenging times – times when I was playing in the minors, when it was just hard to find a job for another minor league team the next year – I just always asked myself, 'Do you enjoy going to practice?' " Thomas said. "I always enjoyed going to practice, and that's why I never quit. I still enjoyed playing – any way in any league I could. I just wanted to play."
He still does. His aunt Judy Torok said she asked him what is next goal would be. His response? "To do better next year."
"I think there's more to come," Barrow said. "If you know Tim … "
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