Not once during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup, when he faced a record number of shots and made a record number of saves, had Tim Thomas run out of steam. But last Saturday morning, standing on a riser of a duck boat and waving to a happy throng packed so deep that the sidewalks of downtown Boston had disappeared, he finally faltered. "Man, my arm is tired," said the workhorse goalie as he lowered his right hand. "I need a break." The task of acknowledging everyone who wanted to thank him, apparently, was just too much.
There is no shortage of New Englanders eager to thank Thomas, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the NHL playoffs. Fans at the Bruins' victory parade lined the balconies at Government Center, clung to tree branches outside St. Paul's church, straddled barricades along Boylston Street and climbed the ledges of the public library at Copley Square. TIM'S MY GOVERNOR, said one sign. NO DOUBTING THOMAS, read another. Asked a third: HEY, TIMMY, WHAT TIME IS IT? TWENTY PAST LUONGO. In contrast to the ransacked storefronts, car fires and appalling lawlessness in downtown Vancouver hours after Thomas had shut out the Canucks 4--0 in Game 7 on June 15, this was a scene of exquisite joy from hundreds of thousands of fans. The Bruins had earned this reception by proving themselves worthy of the franchise's Lunchpail A.C. legacy, winning their first Stanley Cup in 39 years with a gritty and resilient playoff run. Boston dropped three of its four postseason series openers, twice trailed two games to none and survived one seventh-game overtime. After losing one high-scoring forward (Marc Savard) to a season-ending concussion in January, the club lost another (Nathan Horton) to a series-ending concussion in the finals' third game.
On Saturday, adulation and confetti rained down on Thomas, who flicked an orange sliver off his bushy red playoff beard (most of his teammates were by now clean-shaven) before ceding Cup-holding duty to captain Zdeno Chara. Then one by one Thomas took his children—Kiley, 10, Kelsey, 7, and Keegan, 5—in his beefy arms to look over the throngs. "See how far back it goes," he told Keegan. "Can you hug all those people?"
Certainly they could all hug Thomas, the 37-year-old who is quintessentially Boston, a metropolis with a small-town ethos bordered everywhere by cradles of academia. Tough, but smart. "This is a blue-collar city, and his success took a ton of hard work," says Bruins president Cam Neely. "Our fans are sharp. They respect battlers and see through phonies. They see their best qualities in Timmy."
In the front of the lead duck boat, Tim Thomas Sr. recalled the boy who would ask his father to toss him footballs near the backyard bushes outside their Flint, Mich., home so he'd have to dive into them to make a catch. "It was more of a challenge that way," the junior Thomas says. He would even attempt to make diving catches in the street until the day he collided with a slow-moving car. Yes, thanks, just a scrape. Oh, and how is your Buick?
In 1980 a five-year-old Thomas watched goaltender Jim Craig play beyond his means to lead Team USA to its Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union and, with a win over Finland two days later, the Olympic gold medal. "From then on," says Thomas, "I wanted to be a goalie." Within a few years Tim Sr. and his wife, Kathy, had pawned their wedding rings for $300 so they could send Tim to a peewee tournament. The father sold cars and, later, local produce, and at 16 the son went door-to-door peddling bushels of apples. "He was determined to be the best at that too," says Tim Sr., 57. "Sometimes if people wouldn't answer the door, he'd peek around the back to go find them. He'd sell about five bushels and make $40, and he'd stay out until he made it."
In his yearbook at Davison (Mich.) High, Thomas was dubbed Rip Van Winkle because he could sleep through classes yet still maintain an A average, frustrating teachers by having the right answer when they woke him up. "I don't think it was hard enough for him," Tim Sr. says with a smile. He fondly recalls Tim's high school paper on his ambitions and goals. There was no mention of hockey; instead he wrote of hoping to live up to Tim Sr.'s example as a husband and father of two.
Thomas attended Vermont and as a junior led the Catamounts to their first Frozen Four berth, in 1996. An English major, he was especially taken with Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's epic novel about rugged individualism, which he reread this year. "I think it influenced my life and even the way I play goal," he says. The book's theme has certainly served him well as a self-made goaltender, one who never gave up in the face of long odds.
Though Thomas, who had been selected in the ninth round by the Nordiques in '94, often excelled in net, he was unable to stick in the NHL. He played for nine teams in five leagues, including a stint in Sweden and three tours in Finland, between 1997 and 2005. He played four games for the Bruins in 2002--03 after they signed him as a free agent, but didn't get a full-time shot in the NHL until '05--06, when the club once again picked him up off the free-agent scrap heap. He was coming off a season with Finnish league runner-up Jokerit in which he had 15 shutouts in 54 games, but Boston started him in the minors with Providence, where he spent the first third of the season before getting called up. "I had made peace with the fact that I wasn't going to get a chance," Thomas says. "I was O.K. with it."
Given the NHL's preference for tall goalies who fill up the net, Thomas's height, generously listed at 5'11", did not help his cause. But more than that, the advent of the butterfly technique had caused goaltending to become a matter of puck repulsion by geometric equation, with an emphasis on positioning in order to cut down angles and allow only for openings up high, which are tougher for shooters to hit. Thomas's style is intuition over science. He scrambles from his crease, attacking shooters, relying on instinct and reflex, even embracing contact with screeners to get better looks at pucks, the boy diving into the bushes. It's fun to watch and maddening to face. "You can't really scout him," says one rival NHL goalie coach, "because he has no pattern." His unusual approach was enough to make general managers leery of signing him. And he still must deal with the occasional skeptic. Thomas hosted a clinic three years ago along with Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa when one prospective netminder, a 10-year-old girl, watched his demonstration and said, "But wait, that's wrong."