BY PATRICK HOFFMAN
When you are watching an NHL goaltender perform for your favourite team, do you ever wonder how he developed the style he plays between the pipes?
Well, if you don’t, you will this week, as fans throughout Canada will get a chance to watch the Boston Bruins and Tim Thomas take on both the Winnipeg Jets (Tuesday) and Montreal Canadiens (Thursday) this week.
When watching Thomas play, it’s easy to see that he did not learn his style from a goaltending coach. Goaltending coaches these days focus on having their netminders perfect the butterfly style or the hybrid style, which is a combination of the classic standup and butterfly.
Thomas does not need a goaltending coach, nor does he need to replicate those styles. The reason Thomas is so good is because he is made up of the different characteristics and mentality of some of the greatest goaltenders of all-time.
For example, Thomas wields the catlike reflexes of Hall of Famer Terry Sawchuk. The former Detroit Red Wing, Boston Bruin, Toronto Maple Leaf, Los Angeles King and New York Ranger was terrific at going from post to post. He not only positioned himself to stop the first shot but was also in position to stop second and third shots. No wonder he had 103 career shutouts.
Thomas utilizes Sawchuk’s unbelievable reflexes to make diving glove saves, head pucks away with his goal mask, and spread out across the whole goal mouth in scrambles in front of the net. If you are a Canadiens or Vancouver Canucks fan, you saw plenty of those in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In addition to Sawchuk’s reflexes, Thomas has the agelessness of another Hall of Famer, Johnny Bower (New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs). Bower did not become a starting goaltender until the ripe old age (in goalie years) of 31 in the 1953-54 season for the Rangers before going on to be a tremendous goaltender for the Leafs, playing to the ripe old age of 46.
Prior to making it in the show, Bower spent time with the Cleveland Barons and Providence Reds of the American Hockey League, along with the Vancouver Canucks of the Western Hockey League. Building on those experiences, Bower was able to become one of the greatest NHL goaltenders of all time.
Like Bower, it took Thomas some time to get into the NHL as a starting masked man. Thomas had to bide his team in the East Coast Hockey League, International Hockey League, AHL and overseas with HIFK in Helsinki, Finland, before making it as a starter with the Bruins in the 2006-07 season.
Just like Bower did, Thomas is using all the experience he gained in his past to be one of today’s elite NHL goaltenders at the age of 37. Based on the way he looks and plays now, Thomas could be between the pipes for the next five years.
To be a goaltender, one must be fearless. As such, Thomas has scooped up some of netminding pioneer Jacques Plante’s courageousness.
For years, Plante would put his precious face in front of pucks to stop shots and had no problem doing so. Then, back in 1955 on national television in the United States for the first time, an Andy Bathgate (New York Rangers) slap shot broke Plante’s nose, forcing Plante to take out his prized possession: a goalie mask. Plante was also the first netminder to come out and play the puck outside the crease in support of his team’s defensemen.
Like Plante, Thomas plays without a fear in the world. He will put his mask in front of a shot to make the save as well as use other body parts to keep pucks out of the net. Of course, Thomas also is not afraid to take on anyone who gets in his way. Ahem, Henrik Sedin.
When it comes to goaltending, consistency is always important. For that, Tim Thomas has the performance stability of Hall of Famer and Philadelphia Flyers great Bernie Parent.
In 1974 and ’75, Parent put together one of the most impressive back-to-back NHL seasons in league history. In those two seasons combined, Parent had 91 wins, a 1.96 goals against average, and 24 shutouts. In that time span, Parent also picked up two Cups, two Vezina trophies and two Conn Smythe trophies.
Thomas is now using that same consistency. He won a Cup, a Vezina and Conn Smythe last season. This season he has the statistics and the team to do it again.
In other words, Thomas is not just himself when he goes into his crease. Instead, he is everything that made the likes of Sawchuk, Bower, Plante, and Parent — so magnificent in their time.