Spotlight on the Opponent: Tim Thomas

What: Detroit at Florida
When: Tuesday, December 10, 7:30pm (TV: FSD)

Tim Thomas

You look at Tim Thomas’ age and figure he must be in his 15th NHL season by now.

After all, Thomas, the #1 goalie for the Florida Panthers, will be 40 years old in April.

Yet the Davison, MI native is only in his 8th NHL season. How does that happen?

Thomas is a throwback, and where he throws back to, is former Red Wings goalie Roy Edwards.

Thomas made his NHL debut as a 28-year-old with the Boston Bruins in 2002. Edwards, who was a serviceable if not spectacular goalie on some mediocre Red Wings teams, was an NHL rookie at the ripe age of 30 in 1967.

Edwards, bothered by dizziness from fracturing his skull with the Red Wings in the 1970-71 season, finally had to retire by 1973, at age 36. He played just six NHL seasons.

Thomas is a throwback because in Edwards’ day, it was not uncommon for skaters and goalies alike to wallow in the minor leagues for years before getting their shot at the NHL. Edwards was drafted when the league consisted of just six teams. That’s 12 NHL goalies, total. Not easy to crack those dozen. It wasn’t a coincidence that Edwards finally made it to the NHL after the league doubled in size. The expansion draft cleared roster spots on the Original Six teams.

Thomas was drafted by the old Quebec Nordiques in 1994, a 9th round pick after playing one season of college hockey at the University of Vermont. He was 20 when he was drafted.

But Thomas played nothing higher than AHL hockey for nearly eight years, with some stops in Finland and Sweden along the way. His rights had been transferred from Quebec (which became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995) to Edmonton, and finally to Boston, when the Bruins signed Thomas as a 28-year-old free agent in the summer of 2002.

But even after his dream of playing in the NHL had been realized, Thomas still didn’t stick in the league. He played just four games with the Bruins in 2002-03, then again bounced around in the minors, with Providence. In 2004, it was back to Finland to play 54 games for Jokerit Helsinki.

It wasn’t until the 2005-06 season when Tim Thomas, at age 31, had finally become a starting goalie in the NHL, with the Bruins. This time, he was staying.

Twice he has led the league in save percentage (2009 and 2011) and he backstopped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011, posting a .940 save pct. and a 1.98 GAA during the playoffs. Thomas’ performance in the post-season earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. At age 37, Thomas became the oldest winner of the trophy.

But Thomas still had one more exile left in him, and this one was self-imposed. First, he drew controversy when he refused to appear in the White House with his Bruins teammates to recognize the Cup victory, because he opposed President Obama’s politics. Then, after the 2011-12 season, Thomas took a break from hockey.

In January 2013 (lockout year), Thomas was suspended by the Bruins for refusing to report for training camp. He was subsequently traded to the NY Islanders but never played a game for them, as his contract had expired before he could suit up. A free agent, Thomas signed with Florida on a tryout in September and ended up not only making the team, but was installed as the #1 goalie by the Panthers.

So here we are—a 39-year-old goalie playing in just his 8th NHL season.

To quote the Grateful Dead, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Oh, and Thomas is a throwback in another way—his cage mask, which isn’t quite as plain as the one Chris Osgood used to wear, but is still a little behind the times.

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