Tim Thomas, Persistance, and Beating the Odds

There are stories written every year about someone defying the odds through sheer will and perseverance. Most of us, especially those of us who are making a go at self-publishing, want to be an odds-defying success story.

One of those stories came last year when Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Thomas, at 37 years of age, became the oldest player to win the Conn Smythe trophy for playoff MVP, and only the second American-born player to win it. To cap off his accolades, he also won the Vezina Trophy for being the best goaltender during the regular season — an award many thought he would win even if his team lost. He was so amazingly good during the regular season and playoffs that I casually remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’d buy a Tim Thomas jersey if he led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup.

Allow me to set the stage for why this was such an amazing feat:

After a great college career and some time in Europe and the minor leagues, Thomas became Boston’s starting goalie in 2006. He held this position and posted a lot of good statistics every year, being named to three straight All-Star Games and the United States 2010 Winter Olympic Team. But in 2010, his performance began to drop off, and he was replaced by a younger, hotter goaltender. The Bruins made the playoffs, but found themselves eliminated by the Philadelphia Flyers — after leading the Flyers 3-0 in a seven game series. No team had accomplished that sort of comeback in decades. The Bruins were dejected.

During that off-season, Thomas had hip surgery. He came flying back in the regular season and posted an NHL record save percentage of .938. There was no dispute about which goalie would lead the Bruins in playoffs: A Bruins team that hadn’t been to the Stanley Cup Finals since 1990, and hadn’t won the Cup since before Thomas was born.

Their first round opponent? The Montreal Canadiens, their hated rival. The team that routinely trounces the Bruins in the playoffs — the team with the most Stanley Cup wins in history. They lost the first two games in the series at home. They would have to win multiple games in hostile territory to advance. So they did — including three dramatic overtime wins, one in Montreal. During the series, Thomas seemed to stumble a few times and took a lot of criticism.

The next round, they found themselves facing the Flyers, and the Flyers had home-ice advantage. Thomas stood on his head, and this time, they swept the Flyers in four games. He held the Flyers to one goal in each game played in Boston. In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bruins played the Tampa Bay Lightning, and again, it went to seven games. Thomas took more criticism at times in the series because he allowed the Lightning multiple five-goal games. But he also posted two shutouts in the series, one apiece at Boston and Tampa.

Then they faced Vancouver in the Finals. Vancouver, the team with the best regular season record, would have home ice advantage, and Vancouver won the first two games at home. Boston answered back, and Thomas posted another shutout at home, and they returned to Vancouver tied, two games apiece. In Vancouver, Boston was shutout — the game was the third one-goal game in the series, all taken by Vancouver.

Now the Bruins found themselves in an awkward place. No team had ever won three game sevens on the way to the Stanley Cup, and they could barely score in Vancouver. But they had one more game at home, and the Bruins won it, forcing game seven. On June 15, they were in Vancouver for the final time. This was it, one way or the other the season would end after this game. The odds were against them. The crowd was against them. History was against them.

Tim Thomas stood on his head again.

Through sixty minutes, Vancouver could not get anything past him. He bent over backwards to stop the puck at times. He was doing the splits, the flips — whatever it took. He performed some bold goaltending at times. 37 shots of the puck and none got in. At the other end of the ice, three pucks slipped past the Vancouver goalie and a fourth into the empty net when Vancouver pulled their guy for the extra skater.

When the clock stopped, Boston had won the Stanley Cup. Against all odds. Tim Thomas was awarded the Conn Smythe, and later the Vezina, and he got to hoist the Stanley Cup. And tomorrow, when Boston opens their season against the Flyers, I’ll be wearing that Tim Thomas jersey to work. Against all odds, they succeeded. It’s a damn admirable trait, persistence.

If I can defy the odds half as much as Tim Thomas did, I’ll consider myself a great success in life.

Go Bruins!