Speaking Tuesday for the first time since returning to the ice, goaltender Tim Thomas said it did not cross his mind to play hockey again until watching his former Boston Bruins teammates reach the Stanley Cup finals.
“You know what really gave me the itch? Watching the playoffs,” Thomas told reporters in Sunrise, Fla., where he is trying out for the Florida Panthers. “Actually, over the last season I didn’t watch hockey at all. But then when it came playoff time, I started to watch some hockey and it started to get the competitiveness juices flowing and I saw my former team, the Boston Bruins, and the success they had and I was so proud of those guys and what they did, what they accomplished last year, but it started to get the competitiveness juices flowing again.”
It has been 16 months since the 39-year-old Thomas declared he was sitting out the final year of his contract to spend time with his family. The surprise announcement thrust backup Tuukka Rask into the starter’s role, where he thrived last season.
During his hiatus, Thomas was off the radar, making his home in Colorado. He started a real estate business and built townhouses. He said he spent a lot of time with his kids and went on hunting trips. He said he even caught an alligator and turned it into a rug.
The Bruins last summer traded the rights to the two-time Vezina-winning Thomas to the New York Islanders, who made him a free agent when they decided not to toll his contract. Thomas returned to the ice in July, working out in Michigan, and on Monday agreed to a tryout deal with the Panthers.
Thomas’ departure from the Bruins was preceded by months of turmoil. He made headlines in January 2012 for skipping the team’s celebratory visit to the White House for political reasons. He faced heavy criticism for the move and his relationship with the media soured in the weeks that followed.
“My initial reaction after all that stuff was I was so surprised,” he said Tuesday. “Now, I don’t think about it at all. I’ve got better things to think about. I didn’t go out of my way to bring any political beliefs into that situation. I didn’t honestly feel I could go in good conscience to the White House. I had to give a reason for not going to the White House. I didn’t want to lie and say I was sick. I thought I gave, from my viewpoint, a very honest assessment of the situation. I just tried to leave it at that."
Thomas said the criticism bothered him but he has gotten over it.
“It did a little bit at first,” he said. “Over the course of the year I didn’t listen to the media at all. I’m not trying to do any digs, or whatever, and I moved past that and into a totally different place where now I’m focusing on different things and a totally different mindset. I have a new love for playing the game, a newfound appreciation for being able to play the game at this level and be part of a team. I just feel totally new.”
Thomas was asked Tuesday whether he had any regrets about how his tenure in Boston ended.
“That’s a hard one to answer,” he said Tuesday. “In the big picture do I regret it? No. I made the right decision for me and I made the right decision for my family. I’m very happy with what’s come out of it in my own personal life.
“Now, is it hard to leave an organization that gave me my opportunity to break into the NHL, and a place in the Northeast, especially Massachusetts that’s really accepted me as part of the family? Yeah, of course it’s hard to do that. Having said all things, it was the best decision to make for me and my family.”
Prior to stepping on the ice Tuesday morning in Florida, the last time he played in the NHL was on April 25, 2012, when the Bruins lost to the Washington Capitals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at TD Garden.
That summer he decided to step away.
“I got tired and I needed a break,” Thomas said. “Now I’m energized and I’m looking forward to it. I feel great.”
“I think this organization is on the verge of a big turnaround and a big bounced back,” he said. “I’ve actually been through that in Boston before. When I first came into Boston in 2005-2006, that was a low point for the Boston Bruins and I was able to see that rise in that organization. The Florida Panthers are situated in a similar situation.
“My time in Boston was great. I was very fortunate to have the type of personal and team success there. Great teammates, great area, the people of that area allowed me to almost be part of their family. This is a totally new start, totally new place and I’m looking forward to what’s going to happen in the future here.”
Thomas wouldn’t speculate on how long he wants to play hockey, saying only he felt “rejuvenated, refreshed and ready to go.”
Part of the reason the Panthers decided to offer Thomas a tryout is to add some experience to the goaltending position. Florida’s starter is Jacob Markstrom, the 23-year-old Swede who went 8-14-1 with a 3.22 goals-against average last season.
“Nothing can replace experience is one of the things I’ve learned,” Thomas said. “I remember being a young guy in the league and having people talk about experience and thinking experience is overrated,” Thomas said. “Now that I’m on the other end of the spectrum and I’ve been through it, I realize experience can be beneficial.”
Thomas quotes were courtesy a NBC6 Miami reporter, who was at the Panthers’ practice session.