Even if Tim Thomas had everything working for him his entire life, the regular-season and postseason run he just completed still would have been an incredible story. But, as we all know, he's been fighting an uphill battle his entire career, making the tale of Wednesday's Stanley Cup victory all the more unbelievable.
Growing up in Flint, Mich., Thomas wasn't born into wealth. His working-class parents sacrificed time and money to give their son a chance to play the game he loved. They sold their wedding rings so that he could attend goalie camp. They did it, likely, without even entertaining the idea that he'd one day make the NHL. They did it, simply, because playing the game made him happy.
Now 37 years old, it still does. Whether it's a preseason game in Northern Ireland or a double-overtime playoff game against Montreal, whenever the cameras zoom in on Thomas, he always seems to be smiling and laughing. It's a mark of a man who appreciates his place in the world, but it's also indicative of a guy who doesn't take anything for granted.
That'll happen, naturally, when you fight as hard as Thomas has to earn a spot in the best hockey league in the world. When you toil through the IHL, ECHL, AHL and Finnish leagues, you'd be crazy not to enjoy every moment you spend on NHL ice.
Yet, even as he spent half a decade working to earn just a chance to play in the NHL, Thomas wasn't imagining himself winning a Stanley Cup. Even for Thomas, that dream seemed a little too far-fetched.
"No, at that time I was probably just visualizing each game one at a time there when I was in Finland," he said Wednesday night with his Conn Smythe Trophy by his side. "I didn't want to think about the NHL because it just seemed so far away."
While that was the case as Thomas spent time with various Finnish clubs, he certainly had the NHL on his mind in August 2005. It was at that time that he faced a career crossroads: Either stay with Jokerit, where he had a ridiculous 1.58 goals-against average the previous season, or take one last shot at the NHL by joining the Bruins, for whom he had played four games a few years earlier.
He chose the NHL. Suffice it to say, it's paid off.
He's now the owner of the best single-season save percentage in NHL history, a Vezina Trophy (with perhaps a second on its way) and, most importantly of all, a Stanley Cup. He was the best player on the Bruins team that finally brought the Cup back to Boston, a hockey-crazed city that's spent the bulk of four decades yearning for another taste of glory. Thanks to Thomas stopping nearly every shot fired his way, they can.
For that, Thomas will forever be remembered as a legend in a city chock-full of them. His unforgettable run will go down alongside David Ortiz's late-inning heroics in 2004 against the Yankees as one of the most clutch and important performances in Boston playoff history.
He's also forever a part of NHL history. He sat in awe Wednesday night as he looked at the massive trophy on the table next to him.
"The Conn Smythe is completely an honor," he said. "I just sat down here and I started to read some of the names on it, and it's an honor to be mentioned in the same maple leaf with Patrick Roy, Ron Hextall, Ken Dryden — those are the three goalies that I can see just on the side facing me. It's amazing."
As mentioned earlier, even if Thomas had come from a wealthy background, been a No. 3 overall pick, rose through the minors as a big-time prospect and came up huge on the game's biggest stage, his story would be impressive. But Thomas was none of that. He was the 217th pick in the 1994 draft, picked behind the following list of all-time netminding legends:
7. Jamie Storr
16. Eric Fichaud
21. Evgeni Ryabchikov
26. Dan Cloutier
44. Jose Theodore
81. Bryan Masotta
112. Mark McArthur
114. Frederic Deschenes
124. Marty Turco
143. Steve Vezina
149. Patrik Haltia
155. Luciano Caravaggio
168. Steve Plouffe
179. Chris Wickenheiser
205. Jason Elliott
209. Vitali Yeremeyev
210. Frederic Cassivi
212. Henrik Smangs
214. Jeremy Jablonski
Of the 19 goalies selected before him, only two made NHL All-Star teams (Theodore and Turco). Only seven of them ever made the NHL. As a realist, it'd be hard for Thomas to look in the mirror in 2002 and convince himself that he'd some day win every NHL award he could ever imagine. He'd have to be a lunatic to believe that.
Well, we know that goalies are a different breed, and in Thomas' case, he believed enough in his ability to keep fighting.
That he did, and it never stopped, even after he made the NHL. His unorthodox style simultaneously worked for and against him, and he spent his first few years as a full-time NHLer tweaking his game to get better.
His first year GAA and save percentage was 3.13 and .905.
In his second year, they improved to 2.44 and .921.
Third year, 2.10 and .933. Both of those marks led the entire league. He was 35 years old.
Injuries set him back in 2009-10, though many of us just assumed he was fading away. Tuukka Rask looked to be the goalie of the present and the future, and Thomas' legacy seemed to be written. He was a great guy with a great story, though his 7-11 postseason record proved he wasn't a championship goalie.
Most people believed this, but, as we know, Tim Thomas isn't like most people.
Now, he's done it all, proven everyone wrong and won everything there is to win. He just outperformed Roberto Luongo, a guy who was drafted fourth overall but has yet to completely fulfill the expectations placed upon him. The fact that Luongo went out and publicly critiqued Thomas' style? Well, Thomas will never tell you, but you just know that made winning even sweeter.
Yet, even as he sat in front of the assembled media in Vancouver, minutes after reaching hockey's mountaintop, Thomas still refused to take anything for granted.
"I'm sure if I were to start out the season bad next year that I probably with the Cup will have bought a little bit of leeway. But it won't last forever unless I turn my game around," he said with a laugh and a smile.
There he was again, always smiling.