April 27, 2012

Why I still like Tim Thomas in 2,300 words

By Jesse Connolly

For those of you that know me well – and I’m proud to say that many of you who visit this site do – you’ve long known that I haven’t tried to hide the fact that once upon a time I was just like you: nothing more than a fan of the Boston Bruins. 

Bruins goalie Tim Thomas at the 2011-12 All Star Fantasy Draft. (Getty Images)

(My sincerest apologies to all colleagues who like to pretend they exited their mother’s womb as unbiased, hard-hitting, investigative journalists.)

So naturally, when I first became credentialed early on during the 2008-09 season, I wondered when that feeling would fade, when standing inside the Bruins’ locker room (or dressing room, if you’re fickle about such things) would no longer feel surreal.

Being a part of last year’s Cup run was an unforgettable experience that I will always cherish. Even the most stern, bitter beat writers who have covered this club for decades must’ve felt some sense of joy watching a 39-year drought come to a merciful end.

But as this past season began, and October games against the hopeless Hurricanes and brutal Blue Jackets felt less like a treat to cover and more like a chore, I began to think back to what one colleague told me when asked about becoming jaded. He said that, eventually, you just start rooting for the players you really like.

(You have now concluded the first round of requisite reading of my personal back-story. You may now move on to the topic this article is truly about.)

During this strange rollercoaster ride in 2011-12, there’s been one Bruin in particular who has taken an abundance of heat for ducking a certain line of questions from the media. In the event you haven’t read the title of this article or simply haven’t a clue who I’m talking about, his name is Tim Thomas.

And in the event you’ve been living under a rock or stranded on a deserted island (with Jack, Kate and Hurley, perhaps?) for the past three-plus months, allow me to let you in on something earth-shattering.

(I’m now winking at you in that glaringly obvious, Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development” fashion.)

In January, the Boston Bruins were invited to the White House by President Obama to commemorate their capturing of the Stanley Cup in 2011. Tim Thomas, being the brazen, quirky man that he is, decided not to go.

I mean, can you believe that? A guy dared to stick to his political beliefs and make a statement about his dissatisfaction with the way his country was treating its citizens. Good grief! That Tim Thomas character must be the first person in the universe to do such a thing!

The only problem was, of course, he isn’t. Former GM Theo Epstein didn’t formally protest and was in attendance when the 2004 Red Sox were honored for their World Series victory, but he reportedly did not step foot on stage or pose in any pictures with President Bush. Epstein later declined the invitation after the Sox won in 2007, citing “family reasons” for his absence. Hardly a peep was made at the time about Epstein being missing in action.

Was Thomas’ snubbing of Obama a “story” that demanded some level of coverage at the time it transpired? Yes. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was. In publicizing his no-show, the veteran netminder had to know, deep down, that it might prove to be a distraction.

What Thomas probably didn’t expect was for both the local and national media to hound, prod and vilify him for his personal beliefs incessantly for damn near the entirety of the remainder of the season. Every time it seemed as though it was going to die down, it would just keep creeping back up.

Sure enough, as fate would have it, the Bruins found themselves matched up with the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs. Cue old news being dragged back up and poorly-masked questions being asked.

“Tim, do you think the White House stuff is going to be a distraction in Washington?” a reporter asked Thomas, who repeated incessantly that he’d cut any interviews short if that topic or any of his personal beliefs were brought up.

“Claude, has Timmy changed at all in the past year?” another scribe asked coach Claude Julien, which I hoped and prayed would merit a reply along the lines of, “Sure. He’s a year older. Next question?”

The hammering of Thomas’ character continued as the series wore on, notably when the goaltender made comments about what his teammates had to do differently to score more goals, causing some writers to crucify Thomas for making what they viewed as a selfish stance. They then leaked word that his fellow Bruins didn’t appreciate such thoughts being voiced to the media. 

Tim Thomas was accused of throwing his teammates under the bus after citing their lack of quality scoring chances against the Caps. (Getty Images)

Surely no pitcher has ever talked about his team scoring more runs. Surely no quarterback has ever pined for his defense to be better. And surely no Boston Bruins goaltender has ever dared come within a lunar mile of being critical of his teammates.

Oh, wait. That’s right. That sort of stuff, uh, happens from time to time, like way, way back in November of the year 2011 – this season, folks – after a 2-1 win by Boston over the Blue Jackets.

“Well we looked tired at times, and then when your legs are not going, you’re not making the right decisions,” goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “We (committed) a lot of turnovers today which is not our style so there was definitely a challenge.”

Something tells me Rask wasn’t lumping himself in with the players whose legs weren’t going or were turnover prone. Call me crazy!

Following their shocking, heartbreaking experience in Game 7 – a 2-1, overtime win by the Capitals at TD Garden – that ended their hopes of repeating, Thomas seemingly spoke highly of his fellow Bruins.

“I’m very proud. It was a tough season,” said Thomas. “There were difficult periods at times. I looked around the locker room at many different points during this season and saw some very tired guys. And that’s not excuses; that’s just reality. They still found a way to finish second in the conference, get ourselves home ice for these playoffs here, and give ourselves at least an opportunity to get the game seven overtime to take it to that next step.”

Did you catch that? Thomas actually referred to his teammates as “they” for a moment there. Sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? Not to some, who took the netminder’s choice of words as slam-dunk proof that he is an individual, that Thomas lives in his own world and cares not about his team’s goals but only his own.

(Now this is the part where we switch modes and I start rambling about myself again.)

Throughout this entire ordeal – read: smear campaign – I have written very little about this saga and had zero interest in grilling Thomas about what he believes. Even if it was stated in a public venue like Facebook, even if he made a post on his personal website, it’s still – at the end of the day – part of the man’s private life, if he so chooses. If he just stepped off the ice after an hour-long practice session and doesn’t want to talk about his thoughts on anything not pertaining to hockey, he doesn’t have to and he shouldn’t have to.

I’m a registered Democrat, but if Thomas wants to vote for Mitt Romney or Ron Paul, I certainly won’t be offended. I’m a non-practicing, but confirmed Catholic and was entirely unfazed when Thomas vowed to ‘stand with the Catholics in the fight for religious freedom’ on Facebook.

All I can do is step back and try to figure out why this is still such a big deal. Why is Thomas suddenly evil incarnate for voicing views that are shared by literally hundreds of millions of people in our world? It’s not like the guy came out and said we should reinstate slavery or start slaughtering children to control the population, did he? Thomas’ political views and religious beliefs have no bearing on whether or not I like him.

The truth, as you may have figured out by now, is I do like Tim Thomas. Why, you ask? Because the guy has always been nice to me since Day 1 – even dating back to before I became a so-called professional writer.

(This is the part where I go back to the past and attempt to come full circle with this entire piece.)

In the fall of 2008, while still cutting my teeth as a writer (with Hockeybuzz), I was a full-time retail slave at Best Buy.

(Yeah, guy who just said, “That must’ve sucked!” It did.)

One day, in walked Tim Thomas.

Fearful of bothering him, I was timid in my attempt to just come out and say, “Hey, I know who you are and I sort of get paid to write things about you.” I have a tendency to be awkward at times. But much to my relief, he was really cool when I “revealed” myself to him, and he even mentioned that his wife had been to our site a few times. 

When he came back in a few weeks later, the Bruins had just gotten home from a trip to Montreal in which they lost 4-3. Thomas could’ve easily forgotten who I was or considered his brief chat with me in his previous visit enough time spent making a blogger’s day. Instead, he hunted me down for help.

Tim Thomas' superhuman playoff run earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring. (Getty Images)

Before you knew it, there I was, shooting the you-know-what with the starting goalie of an NHL team about an unstoppable shot from Alex Tanguay in the shootout. To this day I still remember him saying, “I mean, no one could’ve stopped that!” He was right.

(He was right? Who am I kidding? What a “selfish excuse-maker” that Thomas guy is. He probably blamed it on his defensemen.)

(More winking.)

For as long as I can remember, if anyone’s asked me who the easiest guy to talk to on the Bruins is, I’ve essentially always had the same answer: Tim Thomas. Over the course of my time on the job, I’ve embarked on a number of lengthy sit-downs with the two-time Vezina Trophy winner and 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient. Every single time I’ve thought about just how remarkably unforced and natural the conversations felt.

With Thomas, there are no clichés. Sure there are quirky answers and occasional pauses, but in every chat I’ve had with him, I’ve always felt like I was just talking to a normal guy and every response – as corny as it may sound – came from the heart. It didn’t matter if it was about life living in Finland, the pressure that comes along with being the starting goalie of a championship-starved, Original Six team or how much he loved watching “Quantum Leap” growing up.

(I kid you not: I worked the phrase “Oh, boy!” into my reply to him -- arguably the wittiest moment of my life.)

After doing a cover story for NEHJ on him during the 2010-11 season, we passed by one another as he left practice and he gave me a look of gratitude as he grinned and nodded in my direction. A few days later, I spotted a link to the web version of the article had been posted on his old Facebook page (presumably by his close friend and former University of Vermont teammate, Pavel Navrat, who serves as executive director of the Tim Thomas Foundation and co-owner of Tim Thomas Hockey), praising the piece as an inspiration to all players to never give up on their dreams.

(In case you missed it in that lengthy aside about Navrat, Thomas has put together hockey camps for kids across the region every summer for five years running – though probably solely to achieve more fame and brainwash impressionable, American children.)

(Even more winking.)

As someone who took a long and winding road to get to where they are today, I have an even greater appreciation for all that Tim Thomas has accomplished in his career and in his life. Because of his storybook tale and his on-ice success, he’s naturally an easy guy for many folks to root for.

For my entire 26-plus year existence, I’ve always judged people on what I’ve seen from them and how they’ve treated me personally. Is there a possibility – no matter how slim – that things aren’t always hunky-dory behind the closed doors of the Bruins’ locker room? Of course. But that’s an area that an extremely small number of individuals in my position have been privy to. Never once have I seen any concrete proof that condemns Thomas or proves he’s a bad teammate or a bad human being.

Because of the off-ice circus and never-ending White House obsession, Thomas hasn’t been nearly as accessible as he had been in seasons past. Sure, he still more than meets his media obligations, but no one can blame him for keeping potential inquiries about long-irrelevant topics to a minimum.

That’s not only a shame because he’s almost always a great quote but because, to me, he’s proven himself to be an honest, approachable and most of all likeable guy during my time covering this team.

In heeding my aforementioned colleague’s advice, unless he really goes off his rocker one day, I will keep rooting for the continued success of Thomas, be it in Boston or any other hockey town. To me, it doesn’t matter who he votes for, what church he prays in or what political movement he chooses to stand for or against. He has been nothing but kind, helpful and gracious to me since Day 1. That, as far as I’m concerned, is all that truly matters.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JesseNEHJ.