DENVER - Eleven years ago, Tim Thomas was in this Colorado city, gunning for a pro paycheck.
In 1997, Thomas had graduated from the University of Vermont. That fall, the goaltender, a ninth-round draft pick of the Nordiques in 1994, was in the main camp with the Avalanche (the team had relocated from Quebec) at McNichols Arena, having passed through the rookie camp in Hershey, Pa.
Thomas thought he was competing for a job. But the Colorado camp turned out to be one of a string of slights the unorthodox goalie would face as a pro.
"I think I had a good rookie camp," recalled Thomas after yesterday's Bruins practice at the Pepsi Center. "I think I had a fairly good main camp. I never played in a game, but based on scrimmages, I thought I was pretty good. But they decided to go with a couple younger goalies."
Yesterday, coach Claude Julien didn't disclose who his starting goalie would be for tonight's season opener against the Avalanche. But it's a good bet Thomas will be between the pipes against the organization that, for the most part, considered him an afterthought.
In 1997, with Patrick Roy and Craig Billington in place with the Avalanche, Colorado tabbed David Aebischer and Randy Petruk to be the goalies in Hershey, the organization's AHL affiliate. After camp, Thomas was released. But Thomas made a point to tell coach Marc Crawford one thing.
"When I left here, I told them I was going to prove them wrong," Thomas said. "And part of the drive has been to do exactly that."
Thomas, who is entering the final season of a three-year, $3.3 million contract (one of former general manager Mike O'Connell's wisest transactions), has proven he's a No. 1 NHL goalie. In 2007-08, he was projected to back up Manny Fernandez, who was acquired from Minnesota on July 1, 2007, for prospect Petr Kalus and a 2009 fourth-round pick.
But Fernandez's left knee was never right. While Fernandez struggled with the injury and finally underwent surgery in December, Thomas grabbed the starting job, became an NHL All-Star for the first time, and backstopped his team to a first-round playoff appearance against Montreal.
Thomas had always been known as a scrambly goalie who relied on athleticism to make acrobatic stops. But last season, playing behind the box-plus-one defensive system introduced by Julien, he played a calmer style, pulling out the showstoppers only in last-ditch situations. During the regular season, Thomas recorded a 28-19-6 record with a 2.44 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage.
"I think Timmy was a better goaltender last year because he wasn't as active as he'd been in the past," Julien said. "I think you have to give credit to the way we played the game last year for a lot of it. He didn't have to guess anymore. It was a lot easier for him. We talk about getting rid of the gray area and playing a certain way. Timmy, being in net, knows that and he knows how to react. I think that helped not only our team's game but Timmy's game as well."
Thomas wasn't always as composed. At Vermont, he was instructed to stop the puck and not worry about the manner in which he did it. He was successful with his style, as the Catamounts advanced to the Frozen Four during his junior year.
That season, before Vermont advanced to the semifinals against Colorado College, the Avalanche rewarded Thomas for his play by offering him a contract to turn pro after his junior year.
"In hindsight, it wasn't a bad offer," Thomas said. "But at the time, it didn't seem like enough money. I decided to go back to finish my senior year because I wanted to finish my degree. But if I had another good year, the money wasn't going to go down."
Thomas's plan didn't work as he expected. After his senior season, Colorado altered the deal. The Avalanche didn't offer him a signing bonus. They capped his AHL salary at $30,000.
"They controlled me," Thomas said. "Before, I had leverage with my senior year. But as soon as my senior year was done, I lost that."
Tonight, Thomas will kick off the 2008-09 season knowing that a hungry Fernandez, whose deal is also expiring, is doing everything possible to claim the No. 1 job. Thomas is fighting for playing time and aiming to help the Bruins build on last season's accomplishments. But the 34-year-old is also competing for his next contract. Thomas said he thought about his contract over the summer, but he and agent Bill Zito didn't speak about an extension with general manager Peter Chiarelli.
"Now that we're into it, I've just got to play the best I can play," Thomas said. "That's all I'm concentrating on doing."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.