Tough times of youth explain why he has been champion of underdogs
Some people hit the lottery. Tim Thomas conquered a sport.
The oldest NHL player ever to win it all - a Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, and a Vezina Trophy as the season’s best goaltender - the 37-year-old Bruin became the king of hockey. Rags-to-riches royalty.
Long a nowhere man - Thomas has spent most of his life overcoming hardship and a cavalcade of doubters - he emerged from leading the Bruins to their first championship since the Vietnam War to find himself in celebrity’s golden embrace.
Endorsement deals, promotional opportunities, public appearance requests: For one magical interlude, he had his pick.
So, what did he do?
The Bruins’ record-setting goalie spurned most of the big money and cheap thrills of fame’s easy street for a road less traveled. For better or worse, Thomas stayed true to the lessons of his faith and family.
He thought first of his parents feeding the hungry even as they struggled to feed themselves. He remembered his grandfather giving a homeless man his last dollar. And he recalled his other grandfather, a veteran of World War II who endured the Great Depression, describing an era of self-determination when a land-owner in their native Michigan would trade 40 acres for a rifle so he could hunt to eat.
“I saw examples in front of me that have inspired me to try to do as much good as I can,’’ Thomas said in a rare interview about his off-ice activities since he struck Stanley Cup gold.
While he has enhanced his legacy on the ice by showing flashes of last season’s brilliance, Thomas has exploited his star power beyond the arena mainly by helping the needy and sharing his concerns about America’s future, most famously by boycotting a celebratory visit to the White House.
He has done what people who know him best expected.
“It would have been easy for Timmy to just bask in the glory and cash in,’’ said his friend and marketing adviser, Cleon Daskalakis. “He’s not that kind of guy. He’s more committed to himself, his family, and his beliefs. His idea of success isn’t the guy who makes the most money. It’s the guy who makes the biggest mark.’’
By all accounts, Thomas is driven to do what no Bruin has done: lead the team to consecutive Stanley Cup titles. The quest begins Thursday night, three days shy of his 38th birthday, when he will be in net against the Washington Capitals at TD Garden for Game 1 of the first-round series.
Thomas is coming off a choppy but generally effective regular season, having helped the Bruins maneuver within 16 victories of another epic achievement.
Other NHL teams are expected to try to trade for Thomas over the summer. But Bruins executives, who were angered by his White House snub and are mindful of his advancing years, continue to value him so highly that the chances of him departing Causeway Street are slim.
Either way, he will chart his course by the compass he set in the desperate times of the Flint, Mich., of his youth. Friends say the choices he has made since he hit the celebrity jackpot reflect the values he has developed since he sold fruit door-to-door as a youth to help his family survive.
“He has a passion for the underprivileged because he’s been there,’’ said Jim Switzer, minister of the Valley Church of Christ in Burton, Mich., which the Thomases long attended.
When he returned to Michigan last summer with the Stanley Cup, Thomas stopped first at the church. He donated to the emergency food bank, which his family once helped run, and contributed to building an addition to the sanctuary.
“Those are the things Timmy cares about,’’ Switzer said. “He didn’t just make a lot of money and forget where he came from.’’
The Flint of Thomas’s youth was a collapsing company town. General Motors teetered toward bankruptcy. Unemployment approached 25 percent. People lost their livelihoods, their homes, and their futures, the Thomases among the victims.
His parents, Tim Sr. and Kathy, endured unemployment, a bankruptcy reorganization, an eviction proceeding, and federal tax liens as they provided for Tim and his younger brother, Jake, now a youth minister in Texas.
“It’s true my family was poor, but I never felt that way and I don’t think my parents did, either,’’ Thomas said. “We had food on the table, even though there were times we didn’t know where the table might be the next week.’’
Thomas’s parents never complained, according to friends, and acknowledged only years later that they sold their wedding rings when Tim was a child to underwrite his hockey dreams.
“They have always been very proud people,’’ said Al Schroeder, Thomas’s assistant hockey coach at Davison High School near Flint.
At Davison, Thomas lacked the trendy material possessions of the time and sold two of his prized trading cards - Steve Yzerman and Ryne Sandberg rookies - to pay for his prom.
“He got made fun of because he didn’t have the stuff other kids had,’’ said his friend, Shawn Brown. “He never let it get to him, though.’’
Thomas played with such tattered hockey equipment that Davison’s older goaltender, Al Sumner, first loaned him his gloves, then gave him his chest protector.
“I know he appreciated it, but he never asked for a handout,’’ Sumner said. “His spirit - his stick-to-itiveness - was amazing.’’
While other kids partied on weekend nights, Thomas stationed himself at a hockey net under a street light, challenging anyone in the neighborhood to fire shots at him. On Sundays, he hitched rides with his high school coach to compete against the region’s best older players.
The coach, Tom Barrow, recalled Thomas’s passion to succeed.
“My biggest challenge was getting him to control his rage when the puck got behind him,’’ Barrow said. “He would go bananas.’’
Although Thomas flourished at Davison - the team went undefeated his final regular season - he graduated without being offered a college hockey scholarship. Only after he mustered an invitation to an Olympic festival in San Antonio did he catch the eye of Middlebury coach Bill Beaney, who recommended him to the goalie-starved University of Vermont.
At UVM, Thomas was a blue-collar kid who “always marched to the beat of his own drum,’’ said the coach, Mike Gilligan. “He always spoke his mind and didn’t always fit in, but everybody respected him.’’
An English major, Thomas was particularly impressed by Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,’’ an ode to rugged individualism in a society faltering under an overbearing government. He took full advantage of his scholarship, never lagging academically and graduating on time.
“He never acted entitled, like a lot of college athletes,’’ Gilligan said. “He fought for everything he got, on and off the ice.’’
Red carpet can wait
A two-time All-American at Vermont, Thomas endured another setback when the NHL all but ignored him out of college. Cut from his first NHL camp after the Quebec Nordiques selected him 217th overall in the 1994 draft, Thomas began a lonely odyssey through hockey’s back country, boomeranging through the US, Canada, Finland (sauteed reindeer, anyone?), and Sweden before the Bruins gambled on him in the 2005-06 season.
“I’m pretty sure 99.9 percent of hockey players on the planet would have packed it in by then,’’ said Roger Grillo, a former UVM assistant coach, now a regional manager of USA Hockey. “Tim has turned every bit of adversity in his life into a positive.’’
Even when the Bruins promoted Thomas from Providence, no other NHL team tried claiming him off waivers. They missed something Mike O’Connell saw in the aging journeyman.
“Tim’s competitive spirit is what defines him,’’ said O’Connell, the Bruins general manager at the time. “It’s the kind of spirit that separates the great ones from the rest.’’
It’s what propelled Thomas to greatness last June. Suddenly, he was a global hockey sensation, uniquely positioned - midway through his four-year, $20 million contract extension with the Bruins - to reap a marketing fortune and command red-carpet invitations from Foxwoods to Hollywood.
So, what did he do?
He tended to his summer camps, leaving many of his corporate suitors in the cold.
“I wanted to pick and choose my partnerships wisely,’’ Thomas said.
He made his first move in September by creating the nonprofit Tim Thomas Foundation. Soon he was raising money for victims of Hurricane Irene. He also gave $40,000 to a youth hockey association in Colorado, where he lives in the offseason with his wife and three children. And he donated $1,000 to Danvers Cares to support youth programs in the city where his family and parents live during the season.
In November, Thomas wore a special goalie mask to raise money to fight prostate cancer (both his parents have been treated for cancer during his time in Boston). He also struck his first major endorsement deal, with Quincy-based Arbella Insurance, whose charitable focus appealed to him.
Along the way, Thomas filmed an amusing commercial for Discover Card as part of an NHL sponsorship deal. And he began exploring the power of social networking.
In a move that would reshape his public image, Thomas launched a Facebook page in October, first to promote the ARPwave System, which he credits with sharpening his competitive edge after he underwent major hip surgery in 2009.
Soon he began posting an inspirational “Quote of the Day.’’ (Facebook provides users the option of communicating only with approved “friends,’’ but Thomas has kept his page an open forum.)
Into the political forum
By November, his daily quotes crossed into political commentary, reflecting his conservative principles. Then he began delivering his own messages, first expressing concern about the nation’s eroding social values, later posting a “public statement’’ explaining why he declined to join the Bruins in January when President Obama honored them at the White House.
With his 116-word explanation, Thomas, the NHL’s most renowned American player at the time, distinguished himself from other sports figures who have skipped the traditional White House ceremony. He shunned the president, he wrote, not because of “politics or party’’ but because the federal government has thwarted the Constitution by growing “out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.’’
Two weeks later, Thomas expressed support for the Catholic church amid a debate over whether the government should require church-affiliated institutions to cover birth control in employee insurance plans. Thomas later championed a Marine who was admonished for launching a Facebook page critical of Obama and the government.
As a national debate ensued over Thomas’s commentary, the Bruins and Arbella were among those not particularly pleased by the fallout. The issue may continue to percolate as Thomas plays the Capitals in Washington, a mile from the White House.
“We have been very happy with our relationship with Tim and admittedly were surprised at his White House decision,’’ said Gayle O’Connell, Arbella’s senior vice president of communications. “That was certainly a distraction for everyone, but in no way represents Arbella’s views or opinions.’’
Thomas’s moves all made sense to his friends, however. They said he has long championed limited government, personal responsibility, and Judeo-Christian values.
“That’s absolutely true,’’ Thomas said. “But I believe the values I’m trying to promote are more than that, that they are true American values. I think some of those values aren’t being taught to this generation. That’s part of what I’m trying to do, to pass along the same values that were taught to me any way I can.’’
He would not specifically discuss his White House protest, though he has made clear he harbors no regrets.
Thomas remains close to Arbella, recently pledging a $5,000 matching grant to the company’s fight against hunger. He also recently completed a “Drive for the Underdog’’ fund-raising effort with Bond Auto Parts.
Last week, he expanded his reach by forming a charitable relationship with a new apparel company, “Prove People Wrong.’’ Their first act was to donate $5,000 each to Children’s Hospital Boston.
At Children’s, Thomas visited Will Schrader, a 3-year-old cancer patient whose parents credit the Bruins star with helping the boy endure a bone marrow transplant. For months, Will would not eat, bathe, or sleep unless he could wear his Tim Thomas jersey.
“They’re kind of a perfect match,’’ Andy Schrader said of his son and Thomas. “Tim was always the underdog, and that has been Will’s story since he was diagnosed with cancer’’ at 9 months old.
With the playoffs here, Thomas has little wiggle room in his schedule. Meeting Will Schrader was a perk of his celebrity. Being unable to connect with many other needy fans has been one of the disappointments.
One of those fans is dying of cancer. Thomas heard from him last week, though he wasn’t able to meet with him.
“I’m trying to help as many people as possible,’’ Thomas said. “Sometimes I feel too small because I can’t reach everyone.’’
Some might say that makes him big.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.