How can you not root for Tim Thomas?

Tim Thomas has fallen on hard times.

Cast aside in favor of soon-to-be-if-not-already-superstar Tuukka Rask, mocked in his home arena over the last two months of the season, reviled for the contract he signed prior to the 2009-10 season, Thomas has become, at best, an afterthought in Boston.

It’s easy for fans to move on and forget when a previously loved athlete loses a step or gets lapped by a younger, faster, stronger model. And on that note, it seems especially easy for Boston fans. Nine years ago, Drew Bledsoe felt it when Tom Brady stepped into his void. David Ortiz has been feeling the heat since early 2009 from Red Sox fans. Pedro Martinez became strangely under appreciated after the arrival of Curt Schilling, just as Schilling later heard it when Josh Beckett and John Lester arrived to nip at his heels. And so on, and so on.

It’s the nature of competition, but with Thomas, I take the poor treatment a little more personally. Tim Thomas has, by far, my favorite story in hockey. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1997, Thomas bounced around from the ECHL, IHL in North America to the HIFK in Finland. He signed with the Edmonton Oilers in 1998, and was assigned to the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs before going back to Finland. Then, it was back to the IHL, then back to Europe, and, with the Bruins’ organization, he hooked on with the AHL’s Providence Bruins, where I first saw him play.

He was a weird goalie. He seemed shorter than his listed 5’11”, he wore a weird mask that wasn’t really a Chris Osgood-style cage, and certainly wasn’t your typical Bauer or Itech mask. He flopped around to the point that you weren’t too convinced he really knew what he was doing. He became a fan favorite with the Baby Bruins almost immediately.

He got his first taste of the NHL in four games in 2002-03, wearing a very you-won’t-be-here-for-long number 70 on his back, and played well enough to win three games. In 2003-04, he was stuck back in Providence behind Felix Potvin and Andrew Raycroft, who would go on to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. At the end of the season, and at peace with the thought that his chance to play full-time in the league wouldn’t come, he went back to Finland.

While the next NHL season was flushed down the crapper, Thomas racked up a 1.58 GAA and a .946 save percentage against a 34-7 record. And to his surprise, the Bruins came calling for the revived 2005-06 season. He left Finland, came to camp, and … was assigned to Providence in favor of Raycroft and rookie Hannu Toivonen. But Raycroft struggled, and when Toivonen was injured, Thomas came back up, with the classic goalie number 30 on his back, and started sixteen straight games with the Bruins in dire straights (this is after the abominable trade of Joe Thornton, remember). The team was back in the playoff race, and Thomas was a one-man highlight reel at that time. Behold:

The impossible became the routine. Thomas, he of seemingly no style, was willing the Bruins back to respectability. After every game, he was beaming. He was an NHL goalie. He was rewarded with a three-year, $3 million contract at the end of the year. He’d made it.

What followed? Two consecutive seasons where was penciled in as a backup and emerged as a starter, more incredible saves, and, in 2008, the official resurrection of the team with the help of Zdeno Chara and rookie Milan Lucic, and pushing top seed Montreal to seven games.

In 2008-09, the Bruins got off to a roaring start, and Thomas had his best year, leading the league in save percentage, goals against, and won the Vezina Trophy. For his efforts, he got his payday, a four-year deal worth $20 million total.

That, really, is the root of the angst for Bruins fans. One glance at his 2009-10 numbers (.256 GAA, .915) don’t say “worst goalie in the world.” They’re not at the levels of the previous season, but they’re certainly in line with a strong starting netminder’s. Plus, the Bruins defense was a shell of the previous season (I’m looking at you, Dennis Wideman). But he’s been lifted from games, booed in his home building, mocked by fans as an overpaid has-been.

Tuukka Rask has been incredible. He just outplayed Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, arguably the best goalie in the world. With Marc Savard returning, the Bruins could ride his hot hand deep into the playoffs, if things break the right way. It’s his net, and he deserves it. With any luck, it will be his net for years to come.

In the meantime, Thomas is the good soldier, working with Rask in practice, knowing he may have played his last game in Boston.

Boston fans can be quick to forget. As a group, they toss aside what was old in favor of what is new. Some call this “passionate,” but honestly, this aspect is really just short sighted at best, ungrateful at worst.

Thomas hopefully won’t have to play in these playoffs. If he does, it means Rask has either been hurt or imploded, and either would be horrible. Thomas, as much as anyone, knows the net belongs to who plays best, and no one can argue that Rask has displayed an incredible calm this season. He’s been stellar. He’s their best option now.

Still, it bothers me that his last memory of being on the ice in Boston will be of getting booed as he’s lifted for Rask against Buffalo. It makes me feel better that he played so well in their last regular season game against the Capitals (and him, too, I’m sure), but that was in Washington.

Just before that last home start, I saw him in net against the Calgary Flames. He backstopped at 5-0 shutout, stopping 31 shots. He was the second star of the game, leaving the ice to cheers. He was smiling.

If, next year, he’s on another team, I’ll do my best to keep that moment in mind when I see him. But it will be hard not to think of how poorly fans treated him on the way out.

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