Thomas carries torch but is wary of being burned

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / August 19, 2009

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WOODRIDGE, Ill. - Even now, with his name etched on the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s No. 1 goalie, Tim Thomas has learned to manage his dreams with intelligence and patience. He is here this week, participating in the Team USA Olympic orientation camp, but a lifetime of hockey experience has taught him not to be mesmerized by such things as the Games’s flickering, seductive torch.

“When I found I was nominated for the Vezina, I never really seriously thought about winning it,’’ Thomas said yesterday, Day 2 of the red-white-and-blue camp tutorial. “I wouldn’t let myself believe it could happen until it was announced.

“I’m sure it’s going to be the same way with the Olympics - it would be a dream come true. But a couple of hands of fate still have to fall into place.’’

It took Thomas, 35, the better part of a decade after leaving the University of Vermont to really get his NHL shot with the Bruins midway through the 2005-06 season, every other team in the NHL opting not to nab him off the waiver wire for mere pocket change as he made his way up from Providence.

By this point, anyone familiar with Thomas knows the many travails he went through to make it to the top of the NHL. Now with a chance to fulfill an Olympic dream that he began to shape as a Michigan high schooler, he spent some time the other day recalling how he was passed over years ago when it came time for Team USA to gather up its best and brightest for the World Junior Championships.

A graduating high school senior in the summer of ’93, the 18-year-old Thomas attended the US Olympic Sports Festival in San Antonio, still uncertain where he would go to college and excited at the chance of possibly being showcased in the World Juniors.

“There were eight goalies there, and my team won the gold medal,’’ said Thomas. “Me and the other goalie split all the games. And in four half-games, I let in one goal, total. And then, uh, I ended up not making the team, to make a long story short . . . and I broke every stick in the back of the room.’’

It’s easy for Thomas to laugh about it now, with his NHL career established and a new four-year contract worth $20 million in hand. But as he relived the experience, he clearly was still in touch with the disappointment he felt. He is over it, way over it, but the memory lingers and also factors into his overall expectations about pulling on the Team USA sweater next February in Vancouver.

“From my perspective, it’s probably best not to think about it too much,’’ he said. “For now, break it down to little bites and just worry about playing regular-season games.’’

Mike Modano, considered by many the best US born-and-developed hockey player in history, is the undisputed elder statesman in camp. Big Mo turned 39 this summer and, despite his prestigious profile, is not a lock to make it to Olympus for a fourth time. Like Thomas, he’s a probable, maybe even a likely, but Thomas has the lumps on his résumé to prove that there are no locks in this game.

“Everyone says, ‘That’s the guy [Modano] you’ve coached the longest,’ ’’ said US coach Ron Wilson, who’ll be joined behind the bench in Vancouver by assistants John Tortorella and Scott Gordon. “But I actually had the opportunity to coach Tim Thomas in the ’94 World Championships. And seeing where he is today, I never would have imagined [his success], and I don’t think he imagined it even four years ago.

“Tim is the picture of perseverance and I think a shining example for all our team never to give up, no matter what the circumstances.’’

But again, there are no prepunched tickets for Vancouver. Thomas is here with Ryan Miller, a fellow Michigander and the mainstay in the Buffalo Sabres net. Miller was odd man out of the American rotation at Turin in the 2006 Games when the Team USA staff opted to go with Robert Esche, Rick DiPietro, and John Grahame. Miller, nursing a hand injury at the time, went home to Michigan and, for a variety of reasons, America’s gold-medal dreams went up in smoke.

Now Thomas and Miller are the favorites to suit up in Vancouver, unless ex-UMass goalie Jonathan Quick, the other goalie invitee here, has a sensational first half with the Los Angeles Kings. Wilson said DiPietro, provided he overcomes nagging injuries, also could be considered again, despite the fact that he was too injured to be asked to the camp here just outside Chicago.

“Goaltending is the most important position in the NHL, period,’’ said Wilson. “But it even gets more amplified in a short tournament, whether it is a World Cup, World Championship, or the Olympic Games. When all other things are equal, it is the goaltending that makes the difference. I am not going to make any judgments. I am going to see who is playing well with the candidates we have in mind.’’

The final roster won’t be announced until the end of December, just as the NHL is preparing Fenway Park for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic between the Bruins and Flyers. There were heavy hints here the last two days that Team USA will announce its 23 names Dec. 31 in Boston, no doubt taking advantage of NBC’s coverage of the outdoor game and the fact that NBC will broadcast the Olympics, too.

In the meantime, Thomas said, he won’t dwell on any of it. He still has that mountain of shattered sticks in San Antonio as the memory that keeps him grounded.

“All part of it,’’ said Thomas. “First of all, I had to learn the way the world worked. To get to the NHL, you have to put in your time and play in some place where people can watch you play - one tournament or one game isn’t going to make or break your career.

“Eventually, that tournament helped me to get to the University of Vermont, which is the start of it all, because my coach [at the Sports Festival], Bill Beanie, was the one who was trying to soothe me at the end of the tournament. He actually asked me to come to Middlebury. I told him he couldn’t afford my sticks because I’d broken about a dozen of them. Little did I know Middlebury was very well off.’’

Beanie, recalled Thomas, helped sell him to then-UVM coach Mike Gilligan. Thomas, who had never been east of Niagara Falls at that point in his life, quickly signed on with UVM.

“Funny,’’ said Thomas, “the way it all worked out.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at

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