August 10, 2012

The Hockey Mom: When a 7-year-old's Fathead acts 'selfish'

By April Bowling

When you walk into my son’s room, the first thing you notice is a life-sized Tim Thomas adorning the eave over his bed, depicted in mid-spectacular save. Well, that is unless, like I usually do, you step barefooted on one of the many Legos on the floor, in which case all you experience is a lot of pain. Anyway, as much as I wish I could say it was me, the fact is that Tim Thomas is invariably the last person Sam sees each night before he falls asleep. 

Boston Bruin goaltender Tim Thomas still looms large in 7-year-old Sam's life -- and on his bedroom wall. (Photo: April Bowling/New England Hockey Journal)

While he’s never wanted to be a goalie, Tim Thomas always has been Sam’s favorite player, followed closely by Big Z. When Sam had to play backstop in an elimination playoff game, his appreciation — if not his desire — for the position grew exponentially. So when the news broke that Thomas was “not retiring but not returning in 2013” so he could focus on family and the Olympics, I wondered how Sam would take the news. I also began measuring to see if we could fit Zdeno Chara into Tim’s space on the wall (he wouldn’t).

Full disclaimer: I am a huge fan of Tim Thomas the hockey player; a tepid fan of Tim Thomas in commercials; not a fan of Tim Thomas the Facebook poster; and don’t claim to know the man well enough to be a fan of his or not as a human being in general. But when he declared his latest move on the heels of the White House debacle this spring, I was furious at him for being what I believed was a poor example as a teammate. I’m all for free speech and am not one to confuse being a fan of an athlete for being a fan of a personality, but politics aside, he certainly didn’t seem to have his teammates’ best interest at heart in either case.

Because he was so disappointed when Thomas didn’t go to the White House, I was pretty sure Sam would feel the same way I did about his non-retirement absence. And after all, hadn’t I just written a column about how much Sam prized being part of a team?

Aha! Here was my chance to interview Sam for this column. I’d been wanting to since I started writing it. So I took advantage of the chance and the results are below. I honestly was surprised at his answers, and I wonder if other parents will be, too.

Me: “So, Sam, you heard that Tim Thomas has said he’s not going to play for the Bruins next year. What do you think about that?”

Sam: “It’s sad.”

Me: “How do you think the Bruins will do?”

Sam: “Good.”

Me: “Even without him?”

Sam: “Tuukka’s good.”

(I pause the interview to tell Sam he has to use more words. And that the Bruins, if they are so lucky, will do “well” not “good.” He sighs and rolls his eyes.)

Sam: “And they have Chara.”

Me: “Do you still like Tim?”

Sam: “Yup.” 

Me: “But he’s quitting.”

Sam: “He’s just tired.”

Me: “But he’s not retiring. The Bruins still have to pay him. Some people think he’s being selfish.”

(I’m not a reporter.  I never claimed to be unbiased.)

Sam: “Maybe he’s selfish. I don’t know. I still like him.”

Me: “You like him even if he’s selfish? What about the idea that he should put the team first?”

Sam: “I guess I think he did a good enough job for the team. If he’s tired and wants to go home he can.”

Me (clearly now pursuing my own agenda): “But you’re supposed to think of the team first. Why doesn’t he just retire if he’s so tired? Clear the cap space and roster? No one would blame him! But to sit and get paid but not play?

Sam: “Maybe he thinks the Bruins might trade him if he stayed. That wouldn’t be fair either. That’s selfish of the Bruins.”

Me: Silenced by a 7-year-old.

Sad as it may be, I think Sam already recognizes the difference between the corporate entity of “The Team” and the team made up of the players and coaches. And he’s right. Why should we demand a player be loyal to the team, when the management is likely to ship him off and call it “just business”? And while I still maintain that Tim Thomas has not been a model teammate — which we should expect from athletes, at least those on teams — I understand Sam’s point that he certainly has accomplished enough in the Bruins’ name that he — if anyone — should be allowed to take the money and run.

The Bruins organization probably would.

But I also think it makes it all the more striking when a professional athlete is not only skilled enough to bring home the trophies, but also unselfish enough to put his teammates before himself. If they also are aware of their status as role models and people, then I think that as parents we should make an effort to celebrate them to our children over others who might be more talented but less impressive off the field of play. A Mark Recchi-like player comes to mind as one I would not hesitate to jersey-plaster on myself or my child.

Better yet, maybe we should just beware of building any athlete up too much in our children’s eyes. Martin Luther King Jr.? Sure. Gandhi? Absolutely. Tim Thomas? Well, at our house, we’ll just let him rest up in peace and stay on Sam’s wall.

Unless, of course, Fathead begins making a Mother Theresa edition … then Tim might get retired whether he likes it or not.

UPDATE: The original version of this column incorrectly stated that the Bruins would have to pay Tim Thomas his salary for the 2012-13 season, and that his salary cap hit would not count against the team if he retired. If Thomas sits out the year as expected, he will not earn his salary but the Bruins will still be responsible for his cap hit. Even if Thomas retired, his cap hit would still count against the Bruins, as per the "35-and-over" rule outlined in the NHL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. New England Hockey Journal regrets the error and any confusion it may have caused.

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

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.