When Tim Thomas arrived in the NHL against all odds, after a minor-pro career that took him to the ECHL, AHL, Sweden and Finland, he looked a little more Gump than goalie.
But the pudgy stopper proved immediately that, while he might not be the most conventional-looking stopper, he is easily one of the most competitive. And in the past two seasons, Thomas has worked diligently on both his game and conditioning, making huge strides in both, to the point where many wonder -- with Tuukka Rask getting closer on the horizon as the No. 1 man -- why the heck did the Bruins bother acquiring Manny Fernandez? Thomas surely could have carried the bulk of the load while Rask developed.
Walk into the Bruins dressing room these days and you might be shocked to see a much thinner, more muscular Thomas. While some athletes might have grown frustrated at their team bringing in more competition, Thomas accepted the challenge and even used it as motivation.
That is a big reason why he stuck around Boston last summer to work out with the team's strength and conditioning coach, John Whitesides.
"We worked on everything, but he took my cardio to a new level," Thomas says.
That wasn't all.
"I also did some yoga, which sounds kind of funny," Thomas adds. "I actually didn't know how much it was going to help, but it helps balance out your body. They try to find weaknesses in your body and work on them so they catch up with the rest of your body. Your body is more balanced overall in terms of both flexibility and strength. A lot of the techniques have to do with balance. Not that I think my balance was bad, but it certainly is better now."
Thomas was the Bruins' No. 1 goalie last season, recording a 30-29-4 record with a 3.13 goals-against average and three shutouts. While the Bruins rewarded Thomas with a $1-million contract, they also brought in the more established Fernandez from Minnesota.
Thomas insists he was not worried.
In Boston's first 20 games, Thomas was 8-6-2 with a 1.99 goals-against average. Fernandez, meanwhile, had a spotty start to the year before landing on the sidelines with a knee injury and back spasms.
"The media always thinks I'm Plan B," Thomas says. "But I don't necessarily feel that way. They went out and got another goalie, but hey, this is the NHL -- you try to make your team as good as you can.
"They never said I wasn't going to get a chance to get out there and play. I came in this season planning on getting my chance and planning to play well when I got that chance. I don't think I was ever written off by the organization and I certainly didn't write off myself."
When he first joined the Bruins, Thomas often looked like a fish out of water, flipping and flopping all over the ice in an effort to keep pucks out of the net. These days, he looks much more controlled.
"My style has evolved," says Thomas, who was drafted 217th overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994. "Part of it was just settling in. I didn't play my first big chunk of NHL games until I was 30 and it is different than the minors. Every league is different. I remember in college it took me a few years to adjust to that pace.
"I think I played well when I first came up to the NHL, but my game had to evolve to the pace of the NHL. The fact is, it's a team game and we're playing a more controlled style now so that makes my job easier."
Thomas, 33, says he'll continue to work as hard as he can and hopes his efforts will be recognized.
"I hope the people who really know hockey don't overlook me," Thomas says.
Mike Brophy's Double OT appears regularly on thehockeynews.com.
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