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Goal within reach?

Thomas would savor Olympic opportunity

Tim Thomas has a Vezina Trophy in hand; it would go well, he feels, with an Olympic medal. Tim Thomas has a Vezina Trophy in hand; it would go well, he feels, with an Olympic medal. (File/The Boston Globe)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 30, 2009

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Tim Thomas watched it all on TV in 1980 and remembers the details, including one particular acrobatic save by Jim Craig, even his own mad dash to the corner sundries shop in Flint, Mich., between periods of the now-legendary US-CCCP game.

“I had to get my dad a pack of cigarettes,’’ recalled Thomas, whose own Olympic moment could begin to be framed Friday when Team USA announces its squad for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. “And I bought Boston Baked Beans and lemon drops - five cents each, I think. Our house was on Jane Avenue, and the store was only something like, oh, 150 yards away, and we always took the alley to the store - the same alley in the summer where we’d stop and steal the neighbor lady’s raspberries along the route.’’

A few months shy of his sixth birthday at the time, and just beginning to play goal for the local youth hockey team, Thomas was among the legion of American kids who adopted Craig, the spectacular goaltender, as their Olympic hero and unofficial maker of dreams. The Yanks’ improbable march to the gold medal at Lake Placid, with Mike Eruzione as captain, Herb Brooks behind the bench, and Craig in net, was the springboard that launched a million and one Olympic dreams across the 50 states.

One of those dreams still belongs to Thomas.

“You don’t take anything for granted,’’ said Thomas, the Bruins’ No. 1 goalie, ruminating over what it might be like to hear his name called Friday afternoon when USA Hockey names its Olympic squad upon the conclusion of the NHL’s Winter Classic game at Fenway Park. “I’ve learned that the hard way over my life.

“If it were to happen, you know, and hopefully we can go and have success. Just going would be the culmination of a 30-year dream for me.’’

The one save that remains with Thomas had Craig flat on his back, legs spiked high to crossbar level, a move that years later became a regular tactic of famed Czech goalie Dominik Hasek. Thomas can’t remember if the stop came against the Russians or Finns, but Craig, the former Boston University goalie who grew up in North Easton, was fairly certain it was against the heavily favored Russians.

“Early in the second period, I think,’’ recalled Craig, now 52. “The Russians were really taking it to us and that was one of those saves where you’re just doing anything you can to stop it. At least that’s how I remember it.

“The Russians really only shot when they felt they could score. Otherwise, it was pass, pass, pass, and you’d be thinking, ‘C’mon, shoot it, will ya!’ So for them to have 41 shots, you know just by the total that they were hammering us.’’

The stuff of dreams
If Thomas gets his turn to follow his hero to Olympus, Craig will be one proud Yankee cowboy.

“I don’t know Tim well, but I know his story,’’ said Craig, impressed by the perseverance Thomas displayed, taking some 10 years to make it to the NHL after a stellar career at the University of Vermont. “Sometimes you have to believe in your own dreams and just be passionate about what you want.

“He’s worked so hard for this, not taking the conventional path, and I just think he would be the perfect pick to wear the USA sweater. Even with all the professional success he’s had, he’s that kind of guy that I think he’d bring that amateur Olympic spirit to it.’’

In July, Thomas was one of three goalies, along with Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and Los Angeles’s Jonathan Quick, invited to the US Olympic orientation camp outside of Chicago. It’s likely all three will be brought to Vancouver, although Colorado’s Craig Anderson could push one of them, perhaps Quick, off the side of Olympus.

Based on NHL performance this season, Miller is the likeliest to start in the US net, but Thomas, the oldest of the bunch, has made a career out of turning expectations inside-out. Not unlike how the ragamuffin bunch of Yanks played their way through Lake Placid 30 years ago.

“A lot of people have a lot of dreams in life, and sometimes you have to change your dreams based on reality, on the way things work out,’’ said Thomas. “And sometimes dreams were never meant to be and whatever dream you change to works out for the best. But I possibly have a unique opportunity to fulfill what has been almost a lifelong dream, and not many people get that chance.’’

If named to the team, Thomas will have taken a circuitous route to the Games, much as he did to the NHL. He grew up playing public high school hockey in Michigan, which in those days was not high on USA Hockey’s search list for talent. His amateur career beginning to blossom, Thomas briefly moved to the Detroit area while still in grade school, his parents believing that the increased exposure of playing in a big-city program might lift his profile.

“But after a year, we moved back to Flint,’’ recalled Thomas. “My parents just didn’t like the Detroit lifestyle, and I kind of fell off the face of the earth as far as [USA Hockey] was concerned. There was just no scouting up there at the time, and on top of that I played high school hockey, and as far as I know, I am the first Michigan high school hockey player ever to play in the NHL, and there’s only been me and Jim Slater [of Atlanta].’’

An eye-opener
His first break with the Yanks didn’t come for about another 10 years, after Thomas played junior hockey in Michigan following his high school graduation. He was invited to a USA camp in Colorado, where ultimately the worthiest candidates would be invited to the next Olympic Festival, which in those days was the feeding ground to the Games.

Thomas survived the initial camp and graduated to the Sports Festival, one of eight netminders who would play half the minutes (approximately 30) of each of four games. He was, for the most part, spectacular, leaving him in good stead to be named to the US squad that would play months later in the coveted world junior championship.

“My team won the gold medal,’’ said Thomas, reflecting on that 1993 Olympic Festival. “But I didn’t end up making the World Juniors even though my team won. Four games, me and the other goalie split the games, and I let in one goal in four half-games and he let in 11. And they picked him to go.

“That was my first eye-opener as to the way the world really works. He had played a year of college. He had that year of experience, was a year older, and I had come out of nowhere. Even though I had four good games in front of them, I still had my weird style then that I have now.

“It wasn’t a case of them saying I wasn’t good enough. It was them saying, ‘We don’t know enough about him, but we’ll go with the known factor.’ ’’

Thomas is expected to start at Fenway Friday vs. the Flyers in the NHL’s midwinter showcase game. Immediately following the Classic, Team USA will announce its 23-man squad for the Games, with Craig possibly part of the ceremony. No doubt, it will rekindle memories of the miracle fulfilled 30 years ago in the Adirondacks, the dreams that were born, and those that linger.

“It’s definitely the oldest dream that I can remember,’’ said Thomas, “much older than playing in the NHL, and certainly much older than winning the Vezina Trophy - that was never really a dream until maybe three-quarters of the way through last season, when I realized, ‘Oh, I might be pretty close.’ So, yeah, it would be unique.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.