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Bruins hit the jackpot

Chara, Thomas, Julien capture NHL awards

It was a banner night in Las Vegas for Bruins (left to right) Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas, Manny Fernandez, and Claude Julien, all of whom made a killing with their trophy haul. It was a banner night in Las Vegas for Bruins (left to right) Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas, Manny Fernandez, and Claude Julien, all of whom made a killing with their trophy haul. (Ryan Remiorz/Associated Press)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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LAS VEGAS - The Bruins failed to top off their season with a Stanley Cup, but here on a hot afternoon in the desert, with the Garden ice long melted down a Causeway Street drain, goalie Tim Thomas, defenseman Zdeno Chara, and coach Claude Julien copped three of the game’s most prestigious awards in an end-of-the-year hardware hat trick.

Thomas, eyes watery and voice choked with emotion, received the Vezina Trophy as the game’s top netminder.

The towering Chara, humbled to the point of nearly being mesmerized, collected the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman, voters clearly adopting the literal translation of the award.

And Julien, saying later that he gladly would have sacrificed any personal award for his goalie and defenseman to leave here as winners, picked up the Jack Adams Award as best coach. Ex-Bruins bench boss Pat Burns, gaunt from his years-long battle with cancer, presented the award to Julien, calling him to the stage inside the Palms Casino by referring to him as “mon ami Claude Julien.’’

“Yeah, when I heard him say, ‘mon ami,’ ’’ a beaming Julien, a fellow Francophone, said, “I kind of figured then it was a gimme.’’ Mon ami is French for “my friend.’’

Thomas, the forever-doubted former University of Vermont star, delivered the line of the night when he became the first Bruin since Pete Peeters (1983) to win the Vezina. He first acknowledged that he hadn’t allowed himself much time to think about winning it, in part because of the names of some of the “legends’’ to receive it since its inception in 1927.

“When you look at the names . . . ’’ he said. “I’ve been more worried about getting my name on a roster than about winning the Vezina Trophy.’’

Now 35 years old, and recently signed to a four-year $20 million deal, Thomas didn’t get his big NHL break until midway through the 2005-06 season, and 29 other NHL teams opted not to claim him as he made his way to Boston through waivers from the American Hockey League.

“You know, I bet if you asked a lot of those GMs, I bet they’re glad to have been proven wrong,’’ Thomas mused when off stage. “It’s a hard job, judging players. And, hey, I’m happy I made it through waivers, or maybe I wouldn’t have ended up in Boston.’’

The Vezina Award is chosen by the league’s 30 GMs, many of whom opted not to give Thomas a chance. The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association decides the majority of the trophies, including the Norris. The league’s broadcasters select the Adams Winner.

All in all, it was Boston’s most impressive trophy heist since the Big Bad Bruins days of the early 1970s, when they festooned a pair of Stanley Cup victories with a bounty of treasures accumulated by the likes of Bobby Orr, John Bucyk, Phil Esposito, and Derek Sanderson.

Prior to Chara, Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque was the last Bruin to win the Norris. Bourque won five during his two decades on Causeway Street. Don Cherry (1976) and Burns (1998) are the only other Boston coaches to win the Adams.

Chara, much like Thomas, also overcame years of doubt to reach the pinnacle of his chosen profession. Tall and awkward as an adolescent and teenager in Slovakia, he was told countless times to try any sport but hockey. He heard it when he was 5 feet 10 inches, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4, and all the way up to 6-9 at age 18.

“All these discouragements,’’ Chara recalled early last evening, as he contemplated how he and his wife might celebrate such a glorious achievement, “something about them just kept motivating me. I mean, I got cut by every possible team.’’

Later, Chara added, “It’s always a great feeling to prove people wrong. I played basketball, tennis, soccer, and it was all just part of a kid having fun. I just never quit. I was close, but I never quit.’’

Julien, a journeyman defenseman in the minor leagues, got his first big NHL break behind the bench with the Canadiens, midway through the 2002-03 season. His career path appeared short-circuited as recently as the spring of 2007 when Devils boss Lou Lamoriello sacked him in New Jersey, despite a superlative 47-24-8 record. Slightly more than two calendar years later, he is the creme de la creme of the coaching fraternity.

“I don’t see things that way,’’ said Julien, asked if he felt a degree of vindication. “A lot of coaches have moved around the league. It’s a business. You accept it for what it is. These things happen.’’

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, who was in the audience, this week received a four-year contract extension. One of his main priorities, he said, will be to sign Julien to a new deal beyond the 2009-10 season.

“Will not be a problem,’’ said Julien, who, with wife Karen, took a helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. “I love it [in Boston]. I don’t want to go anywhere else.’’

Thomas also won the Jennings Trophy, awarded each year to the goalie tandem that produces the lowest goals-against mark. Thomas shared it with Manny Fernandez, his backup, who will not be asked back now that his contract has expired, allowing rookie Tuukka Rask to move in as Thomas’s stablemate.

Thomas and Fernadez both came to the stage to accept the trophy. The presenters were Reggie Lemelin and Andy Moog, both of whom are former Boston goalies. Thomas, with Fernandez to his right, did most of the talking, and after thanking friends and family, he drew a good chuckle from the crowd when he turned to Fernandez and said, “Do you want me to thank your wife, too?’’ It prompted Fernandez to say a few words, and he graciously thanked Thomas, the workhorse, for posting such great numbers as the team’s No. 1 stopper.

Thomas, whose parents sold their wedding rings when he was a young teen, allowing him to attend a summer goalie school, has become one of the league’s feelgood stories in recent years. As a kid, joined by father and brother, he went door-to-door selling apples in downtown Detroit. A late invite to the University of Vermont, almost a walk-on, he became an All American with the Catamounts in the mid-’90s, but couldn’t find serious interest among North America pro teams, especially NHL teams. He became a star in Finland, which is where he caught the eye of Boston scouts and GM Mike O’Connell.

There are days, says Thomas, when he grows tired of telling the story.

“But at the same time, I don’t get tired of hearing it,’’ he said. “Hey, I thought I’d be in Finland for the rest of my career. Now, I wouldn’t call it rags [to riches], but this is a whole different level I’ve been able to reach.’’

The show itself was awkward at times, with presenters, many of them ex-NHLers, chopping up their lines when reading from the teleprompter. Lead singer Chaka Kahn, her songs tired, displayed a wardrobe that looked as if it were hastily tailored out of the drapes of a nearby Marriott. The league has contracted to return here for the same ceremonies the next two years. Not a bad start overall, but it definitely needs refinement. Like a lot of NHL ice, it was choppy.

Alexander Ovechkin, as expected, won the Hart Trophy (MVP) for the second season in a row. Columbus goalie Steve Mason was name rookie of the year (Calder Memorial Trophy). Nashville’s Steve Sullivan, severely hindered by back woes and surgeries the past two season, was the Masterton winner for perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication. Slick Detroit pivot Pavel Datsyuk picked up both the Byng (gentlemanly player) and Selke (defensive forward) trophies.

Chara edged out the likes of the iconic Nicklas Lidstrom and Washington’s green Mike Green to win the Norris for the first time. He idolizes Lidstrom, a point he made repeatedly, which only added to Chara’s appreciation for winning the trophy. A health and workout fanatic, Chara virtually never ingests such things as caffeine, chocolate or alcohol. He will sometimes splurge by dabbing a small amount of butter on a baked potato. When he does splurge, he’ll have a glass of wine. But it must be Japanese plumb wine.

“I don’t know what I’ll do to celebrate,’’ said the Norris winner. “I don’t know. I might have a sip.’’

Ah, success, so sweet.

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