June 25, 2012

The Goalie Guru: Teamwork a forgotten concept for Thomas

By Brion O’Connor

As I write this column, the “will he stay or will he go” drama surrounding the Bruins’ Vezina-winning goaltender Tim Thomas is still simmering. Count me among those who believe that the team is better off without him. It’s not because I don’t like Thomas (as a person or a player), or don’t respect him, or don’t think he can still get it done at 38 years young. 

Primarily, Thomas and the Bruins are better off parting ways because he’s forgotten one of the bedrock principles of the sport: It’s all about the team.

Keep in mind, this is not a “Bruins” issue. Even though this column focuses on Thomas, it’s not a Boston-centric topic. It just so happens that it was the Black and Gold that Thomas played for, and it was the Bruins locker room that was severely compromised by the self-centered actions of their goaltender.

What Thomas did, in several highly publicized pratfalls and in many more instances that flew under the radar, was to put his own priorities before those of his team. There’s an old adage that organizations often rot from the head down. For hockey teams, the decay often begins in the locker room. And it often proves fatal.

The key element to remember here is this concept: The goaltender is part of the team. A vital, essential part of the team. Granted, that’s not always evident, especially the way some coaches allow the goalies to be scapegoats when “bad” goals get scored (I can usually find a string of mistakes that lead to almost any goal, but that’s a subject for another day). But the reality is that goaltenders have only one job — to keep the puck out of the net. If the biscuit gets behind them too often, they usually feel the brunt of any subsequent losses.

As a result, goaltenders often feel like they’re on an island. They’re separated from the rest of the team for a variety of reasons, including their singular job description and the pressure that goes along with that, and their own history of being eccentric. That’s all the more reason why goaltenders have to ingratiate themselves with their teammates. If they can, they cultivate a win-win scenario.

Teammates will go to the wall for a goaltender they care about. Conversely, they can just as easily give up on a goaltender whom they’ve either lost faith in or don’t like. It’s the nature of the beast. That doesn’t mean the locker room has to be a love-fest, but there’s got to be mutual respect. Thomas took a wrong turn when he took his “lone wolf” persona public. Repeatedly.

Let’s start with the famous White House snub. Thomas sat sulking in his hotel room, bemoaning his country’s bloated government, while his teammates paid President Obama a perfunctory visit to celebrate their 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Spare me all those “free speech” arguments; our Constitution prohibits only the government from making laws that prevent free speech. It doesn’t say anything about employers, or even coaches. (If you don’t believe me, try disparaging your boss on Facebook, and see how quickly you get called in on the carpet).

Clearly, the Bruins’ brass wanted Thomas (one of only two U.S. natives on the team) to join the squad at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., and they had 5 million reasons to insist on it. But the pride of Flint, Mich., believed his agenda was more important. That “me-first attitude” became a recurring theme for Thomas and the Bruins last season.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ teammates did and said the right thing. Their comments boiled down to this: “As long as he stops the puck, he can say whatever he wants.” Don’t believe it. Those of us in the business know players avoid saying what they’re feeling, especially if the topic is as sensitive as a teammate’s behavior. I’d bet my house that a little sodium pentothal would deliver comments that cut much closer to the bone, revealing how much Thomas had cut himself off from his team. One team source told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa that Thomas was a “(expletive) selfish (expletive).” I guarantee you it was an opinion shared by more than a few.

But Thomas wasn’t done. Emboldened by his newfound notoriety, Thomas returned to Facebook to pontificate about his support for the Catholic church amid a birth control debate. Thomas later defended a U.S. Marine scolded for creating a Facebook page critical of the government, which brought the national media buzzing around the Bruins’ locker room. Just what a suddenly .500 team didn’t need.

Then Thomas tried to hide behind the classic smokescreen, separating his “job” and his “private life.” It’s an argument that makes Thomas sound either like a country bumpkin, or disingenuous. I believe it’s the latter, because Thomas is actually pretty bright, much like that “Hick from French Lick,” Larry Bird. However, he misjudged the public backlash (or at least the media backlash) of his actions, and he turtled. He made comments that he knew would make headlines, and then refused to explain them.

That trend continued right through the end of the season. By the time the playoffs started, the collective weight of media attention seemed to squeeze the fight out of Thomas. Even when the Bruins lost Game 7 of their series against Washington, on Joel Ward’s overtime strike, I didn’t see any of Thomas’s typical fire.

Despite the fact that Capital Mike Knuble ran into him on the game-winning rush — in what former referee Kerry Fraser called a clear case of goalie interference — Thomas didn’t argue the call, didn’t insist on a video review. This was not the Thomas that decked Philly’s Scotty Hartnell in the 2010 Winter Classic, or flattened Henrik Sedin in last year’s Stanley Cup finals.

Instead, Thomas laid down, He seemed more than happy to get started on his summer plans. There was even the semi-poignant postgame moment that proved, to my mind, that Thomas quit. As the Bruins players milled about, waiting for the Caps celebration to die down so they could get on with the handshake, Thomas was caught on camera going over to some young fans, telling them to smile. Ever the cynic, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s probably his kids.”

Sure enough, they were. Now, I understand that no father wants to see his kids upset. My point is that Thomas wasn’t upset. The competitive flame that had been his trademark was gone.

So what was Thomas’s parting shot, as he packed up the family before running off to Colorado? He told the Globe’s Nancy Marrapese-Burrell: “We went right into a very long season and we had adversity throughout that season. Having said that, we stuck together and got it done to come up second in the Eastern Conference.”

No, Tim. You didn’t stick together. You bailed. When the rest of your team went to celebrate at the White House, you hunkered down in your hotel room to spout some political rant. You made bold Facebook statements, but didn’t have the backbone to back them up. You hid behind classic “Bull Durham” sports clichés, and then left your teammates to face the music (oh, you didn’t think that would happen?). You didn’t nurture a team atmosphere; you abandoned it.

The Bruins were a team that died from a thousand cuts, and many of those could be attributed directly to their netminder. Thomas put his own agenda ahead of the rest of the squad, and those actions had ramifications that doomed the Bruins season. Thomas was no longer seen inside the locker room as quirky or eccentric. He was seen as selfish. That’s a cancer. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Brion O’Connor is a Boston-based writer and owner of Inspired Ink Communications. He is also a long-time hockey coach and player, specializing in goaltending instruction.
Learn more at TheGoalieGuru.com.

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