Tim Thomas listened intently. The NHL All-Star Game press conference room in Montreal was filled with reporters from all over the globe looking for snappy answers to specific questions, and the journalist who had the Boston Bruins goalie's attention at the moment was no different.
He asked what Thomas thought about the San Jose Sharks, who like the Bruins were leading their conference at the break. Did Thomas have an appreciation for the Sharks and their success?
"I think they've had more success over the last few years than we have. So they're a little bit more used to this success. Um ..." Thomas said, before a long pause in the short interview.
"You want the honest truth? I don't think about San Jose that much," he said with a laugh. "I think mostly about the East Coast competition, because that's who we play the most."
There's a disarming honesty with Thomas, the 34-year-old goalie in his fifth NHL season with Boston. Maybe a guy who kicked around the minor leagues and Europe for several years after breaking in with the ECHL's Birmingham Bulls in 1998 doesn't want to waste a moment of his NHL career with a canned answer. Or maybe he's just a humble, blue collar guy from a town (Flint, Michigan) and a team (the Bruins) that both share that same aesthetic.
"There are times when I feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey, in a certain way," he said. "If anything, that just gives me motivations to keep proving people wrong. I probably would feel uncomfortable if everyone believed in me too much."
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He may feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of hockey, but some of his actions this season for Boston have seemed more in line with Ron Hextall or Billy Smith. Thomas knows this, and he's not exactly proud of it.
Thomas had two memorable incidents this season that saw him get involved in the physical side of the game. The first was a shot to the head against Andrei Kostitsyn, after the Montreal Canadiens winger earned a boarding major for running Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward in a game earlier this month. Last week, Thomas made news by "launching" himself at Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs as Blake skated in on a scoring attempt.
Thomas's physical play has gained him as much notoriety as his all-star season for the Bruins, which has him first in the NHL in save percentage (.934) and fourth in GAA (2.09).
He's proud of his achievements between the pipes for the Bruins; but he's rather remorseful that the rough stuff has shared the headlines.
"Actually, I really don't want to get that reputation," he said. "It could become a focus for other team. I think it was just a couple of unique situations; that kind of just happened. I'm definitely no Billy Smith."
That reputation for physical play is also something that dogged Thomas for years as a young player; like the time he had 22 penalty minutes for the Detroit Vipers of the IHL in 36 games.
"It's actually something that I tried to bury for the most part. But there are situations ... like the Kostitsyn thing. I thought we had a guy paralyzed in the corner. I'm not going to apologize [for that], you know?"
On the Blake play, Thomas doesn't believe he was out of line, either.
"He cuts to the net with the puck and runs the goalie over. He's done it to me five or six times this year. That's what I thought he was going to do," said Thomas.
Still, Thomas's rationale for wishing to downplay his role as goalie/enforcer is that he wants to do what's good for the Bruins; and what isn't good for the Bruins is to have their Vezina-contending goaltender injured by an opponent because Thomas's reputation precedes him.
"As you know, goalies are very vulnerable when we're outside of the crease: our head's down, we're on the puck, and we're not looking for the hit. If someone wanted to take advantage of that, they could really, really hurt a goalie," he said.
So Thomas doesn't want to be known as Ron Hextall ... how about the next Jim Craig?
The 2010 U.S. Olympic team will be announced at some point this year, and Thomas's name has crept into contention with players like Ryan Miller and Rick DiPietro (if healthy, of course). This suits Thomas just fine, as representing his country on the world's greatest stage is a personal goal.
"In the 1980 Olympics, I was 5 years old, and it made a huge impression on me as an American. Jim Craig wasn't the total reason I was a goalie, but he's the reason I wanted to stay a goalie," he said.
"My dream was the play in the Olympics long before it was to play in the NHL."
First, Thomas is focused on another dream: helping to lead the Bruins to the Stanley Cup this season. Even if there are still those who question if he's the guy to do it.
A journalist on media day asked Thomas how he felt about hockey observers who questioned whether the Bruins still needed a No. 1 goalie, even after the season he's had.
Thomas listened intently, again.
"That's only [what they say] in Canada," he said, with a laugh.