The NHL's best and worst this week: Tim Thomas' saga reminds us that empathy still matters

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

I started covering the NHL two and a half years ago, and Tim Thomas' name has come up in a conversation about every other month. That's not an exaggeration. The former Boston Bruins goaltender has become an obsession in the hockey world. At ESPN, we bring up Thomas as our white whale. As in, how amazing would it be to land an interview with Thomas, who disappeared from the public eye in 2014, just three years after leading the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup since 2011?

I remember a player once using Thomas' name in jest. When I asked him if he thought about what he'd like to do after he retired, he said something along the lines of: "But whatever I do, I'll be around. I'm not going to fall off the face of the Earth like I'm Tim Thomas."

When it was rumored that Thomas was going to be a banner captain during the Bruins' playoff run last spring, the excitement was palpable. Boston is the city where Thomas became a folk hero. It's where, after a decade toiling in the minors and Europe, Thomas finally became an NHL starter at age 31, then became the oldest winner of the Conn Smythe trophy, at 37. Might he actually show his face here, all these years later? (Narrator: He did not).

Thomas became a punchline among hockey reporters. The few details we knew about his personal life and beliefs made it easy, and helped hatch conspiracy theories. He famously boycotted the Bruins trip to the President Barack Obama White House, because "government has grown out of control." There was word that Thomas (a Michigan native) lived in Colorado, but the altitude was too much for him, so he and his family moved to Idaho. And that he lived in a bunker.

I tried contacting Thomas twice in the past two years, to no avail. Then we tried to do a story told through teammates and friends. It didn't go very far. A former teammate of his on the 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team politely told me he didn't feel comfortable talking about Thomas, but gave me the phone numbers of two people who might. Neither of those two people ever called me back.

So when it was announced that Thomas was being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame this year -- and that he planned on showing up to the ceremony -- you can bet I was intrigued. So I went.

This time, he showed up.

When Thomas addressed the small group of reporters on Thursday in a conference room at the Marriott Marquis in D.C., what came out of his mouth shook me. And it taught me a lesson about empathy.

Thomas revealed that in 2013-14, his last season in the NHL, he sustained a concussion that changed his life forever. He finished the season, and played in the IIHF World Championships that spring, because on the ice he was "able to be like 97 percent maybe, 95 percent of what I was before."

But off the ice, he was wrecked.

"I woke up the next morning after it and I couldn't decide what I wanted to eat, where I wanted to go," Thomas said. "I couldn't plan a schedule. I survived following the team schedule the rest of the year and just made it through that season."

When Thomas retired, he couldn't watch hockey because his "brain wasn't functioning well enough to be able to keep up with the game." He says he moved out to the woods for a few years because he "couldn't communicate with anybody." He felt it was difficult to maintain relationships with his former teammates. He didn't even talk to his dad.

It was devastating to hear, and difficult for Thomas to share. He fought back tears. "I didn't want to talk about this," he said. "I didn't want to talk. I didn't want to tell the world this stuff. Not till I felt ready, and I didn't feel ready yet. But here I am."

Hearing him speak, I felt so awful for all the times we joked about Tim Thomas. Truth is, we had no idea what was really going on. Afterward, I immediately thought back to two years earlier when I met an NHL scout and was talking to him about starting goaltenders in the league. When he brought up then-Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, he said, "that guy is f---ing crazy."

As we have since learned, Lehner was battling a lot during that time -- alcoholism, a dependence on sleeping pills, and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as bipolar disorder which, to that point, had gone undiagnosed.

Just as it was brave for Lehner to come forward with his diagnosis, it was courageous for Thomas to address his current situation on Thursday. I hope, in some way, it was cathartic for him to share. For the rest of us, it was a sobering reminder to not assume you know someone's story, especially if they haven't shared it. Because the truth is, we really don't know what anyone is going through behind closed doors.

Jump ahead:
What we liked this week | What we didn't like
Three stars of the week | Biggest games coming up

What we liked this week

  • Sidney Crosby does a lot of good that often isn't publicized. Here's one example: Crosby and his equipment sponsor, CCM, donated 87 sets of hockey equipment recently. That's not exactly newsworthy. What is? Who they donated it to: Underrepresented communities, such as the Hockey Nova Scotia black youth hockey program, and the Hockey Nova Scotia indigenous female hockey program. Hockey Nova Scotia had this to say: "In the spirit of the holiday season, Crosby surprised eight participants from the three programs with their new hockey equipment on Monday afternoon via video and announced his commitment to fulfilling the donation of the 87 sets in the new year."

  • The Detroit Red Wings finally won their first game in a month, snapping a 12-game losing streak. For context, there were four NHL head coaching changes in that span. The win was a good one: A 5-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets. It was iced by this beauty of an empty-netter by Filip Hronek, who lifted the puck from behind his own net, across the entire length of the ice and into the goal -- without touching the ice. When we showed this clip on "Around the Horn" on Friday, host Tony Reali was most impressed by the camera man's shot.

  • It was good to see the Colorado Avalanche act swiftly and put their AHL head equipment trainer, Tony Deynzer, on leave once it was revealed in the Wall Street Journal that Deynzer once showed up to a team Halloween party dressed as Akim Aliu. He was in blackface. I'm told that when Aliu met with Gary Bettman and Bill Daly at the NHL league offices two weeks ago, Aliu shared several incidents, including this one. So I wouldn't be surprised if more stories come out.

  • A milestone to look out for this week: Blake Wheeler is three points shy of surpassing Ilya Kovalchuk as the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers franchise's all-time leader in points.

  • Tim Thomas and Gary Bettman might have headlined the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame 2019 class, but one inductee I was especially interested in was Krissy Wendell, one of the most accomplished women's players ever. During her acceptance speech, Wendell dropped this quote, which was, quite frankly, amazing: "I got married to my husband John after the 2007 World Championships. We had three kids in the next four years. So while most people are up here thanking their spouse for supporting their career, I can thank mine for ending mine."

What we didn't like this week

  • Just devastating to hear the news that 23-year-old Flyers forward Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. He is going to miss the rest of the season as he undergoes treatment. In the first game since the diagnosis, the Flyers hung Lindblom's jersey in his stall at Minnesota's Xcel Energy Center. "He's a fighter, he'll get through this," Ivan Provorov told NBC Sports Philadelphia's Taryn Hatcher before the game. "We love him, we'll support him all the way and he knows we're here for him. He's not fighting this fight alone and we'll do everything that we can to make sure he feels that there's people supporting him." A friend in Philadelphia told me that Flyers fans are trying to organize a movement to nominate Lindblom as captain of the Metropolitan Division at the 2020 All-Star Game to show that the hockey world is standing behind him, too.

  • The Blackhawks were up 3-0 with 15 minutes left against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday. Chicago somehow found a way to lose -- in regulation. That capped off a rough road trip for Chicago, which lost to the Golden Knights and Coyotes by a combined score of 10-3. Chicago's (already slim) playoff hopes seemed to dwindle by the day. With so many injuries, the Blackhawks have had a good chance to check out some of their prospects like Adam Boqvist, Anton Wendin, Matthew Highmore and Dennis Gilbert at the NHL level. The Blackhawks did bounce back with a 5-3 home win on Sunday. As he was being interviewed after being named the first star, Patrick Kane told the United Center crowd: "We're gonna try to go on a run here and get hot. We need you guys, so stay with us." The next month will be critical. If the Blackhawks can muster a late hot streak -- like they did last season -- maybe management holds off on doing anything at the trade deadline. If the losses pile back up, look for one of Chicago's defensemen -- perhaps left-handed shot Erik Gustafsson, in a contract year -- to be on the move.

  • Things aren't exactly going great with the Columbus Blue Jackets these days, either. But, we did get one vintage John Tortorella exchange out of it so far:

  • When Peter DeBoer was dismissed as the San Jose Sharks coach, the organization said it was purely a hockey decision. You can understand why. According to Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic's model, the Sharks now have a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. What I found noteworthy: the Sharks also cleaned house on most of their assistants, too, which is pretty rare for an in-season head-coaching change. Assistants Steve Spott, Dave Barr and Johan Hedberg were also dismissed.

Three Stars of the Week

Anthony Duclair, LW, Ottawa Senators

We've seen flashes of this before, but this time Duclair really does look like that hyped prospect we saw in his World Junior Championships breakout. A hat trick against his former team (the Blue Jackets) punctuated a terrific week for Duclair. He leads the NHL with seven goals this month.

Jack Eichel, C, Buffalo Sabres

Is there anyone on a better run than Buffalo's captain? In three games this past week, he had five goals and an assist, extending his point streak to 16 games, the longest for any player this season.

Artemi Panarin, LW, New York Rangers

It's still looking like a long shot for the Rangers to make the playoffs. Nevertheless, they don't regret the seven years or $81 million they committed to Panarin. The 28-year-old had five goals and one assist in three games this past week. A late hat trick was key in a 6-3 win over the Sharks.

Games of the Week

Monday, Dec. 16: Colorado Avalanche at St. Louis Blues (ESPN+)

The top two teams in the Central Division face off, and it's going to be a fun one. The Avs are one of the teams rumored to be in on the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. Meanwhile, the Blues might also be looking to improve this season, given they have the cap money of Vladimir Tarasenko to spend (while he remains on long-term injured reserve).

Tuesday, Dec. 17: Buffalo Sabres at Toronto Maple Leafs

The Sabres have picked up points in nine of their past 10 games (going 5-1-4) to rise to second place in the Atlantic Division. (Above the Lightning, Panthers, Canadiens and Maple Leafs? In this economy?) Speaking of those Leafs, they're still on a chase to catch up and get in the playoff picture.

Sunday, Dec. 22: Calgary Flames at Dallas Stars

Both of these teams have already made coaching changes, for very different reasons. Both of these teams expected to contend this season, and both of these teams are in playoff spots (for now), salvaging slow starts.

Quote of the Week

"It's an 82-game season. We weren't going to go 80-3 or whatever it was." -- Boston Bruins forward Brett Ritchie, in a quote to the AP's Stephen Whyno, with some interesting math. Hey, he's not wrong.