BOSTON - Tim Thomas was struggling to get ice time in the minors. So the young goalie returned US$75,000 of his signing bonus to the Edmonton Oilers a decade ago for a chance to play in Finland.
That amount "was a huge deal at the time," the NHL's leading goalie said Saturday. "I just basically made the decision that I needed to play."
Now he has a new four-year contract with the Boston Bruins worth a reported $20 million.
"That's a good investment, isn't it?" general manager Peter Chiarelli said with a smile. "The rate of return on that's pretty good."
One day after the Bruins announced the deal and less than three hours before they played the New York Rangers, Thomas was happy with the latest milestone in his long climb.
Then he posted his fifth shutout of the season as the Bruins clinched the best record in the Eastern Conference with a 1-0 win.
"We always attribute those things to mental toughness," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Being able to put (the contract) aside once the game started and really focus on his job is a credit to him."
Now Thomas can focus on the playoffs without wondering where he might be after this season, when he could have become a free agent.
"In hindsight, I'd have to say everything worked out perfectly," Thomas said, "because here I am."
In his three full NHL seasons, all with Boston, he's earned $1.1 million per year.
With backup Manny Fernandez also facing free agency and promising youngster Tuukka Rask unproven at the NHL level, the Bruins locked up Thomas even if his contract might leave them too close to the salary cap with young scorers Phil Kessel and David Krejci eligible to become restricted free agents.
"We have to figure out the puzzle," Chiarelli said, "but what is important to the organization is that we have terrific goaltending for a long time and sometimes you have to put aside the math, not completely, and make the decisions like we did with Tim."
Thomas began Saturday with a 2.11 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage, both tops in the NHL. He also was selected for his second straight all-star game.
His numbers have improved steadily, from a 3.13 goals-against average in 2006-07 to 2.44 last season, when the Bruins returned to the playoffs.
Not bad for a goalie who played only 15 games for Edmonton's AHL team in Hamilton in 1998-99 before heading for Helsinki. Then he played for Detroit of the IHL in 1999-2000, in Sweden the next season and in Finland again the following season.
Boston signed him as a free agent but he played just four games there in 2002-2003. Then it was Providence in the AHL the next season and back to Finland in 2004-05. But the Bruins re-signed him as a free agent and he revived his career with 38 games for them in 2005-06 and 26 at Providence.
He didn't want to move again after this season.
"You have to think about, would you rather go someplace else or would you rather stay in Boston," he said. "After weighing things over and over the answer always kept coming back, Boston. It's a great place to play."
Chiarelli is focusing on what's ahead for Thomas, not his past.
"When we talk about the Tim Thomas story, we talk about perseverance," he said. "What sometimes gets lost in the translation is the uncanny ability to stop the puck."
He plans to do it for a long time, despite his age.
"I'm really only 34. Like, I am 34," Thomas said with a laugh. "So I don't feel like an old goalie."
Besides, goalies in their 30s sometimes are hitting their primes, like Thomas.
"You look at the success of some of the less young goalies in their careers," Chiarelli said. "You look at the fact that while he's been through an incredible journey, he hasn't been through the grind over a long period of time of NHL hockey.
"While he's at such a high level, he has improved and he's getting better."
But Thomas's career was stagnating back when he was a minor leaguer in Edmonton's system. Through it all, he said, he never considered giving up.
"I never thought it was going to end soon because I enjoyed playing the game enough that I was going to play it somewhere," Thomas said. "I still don't feel like it's close. I still feel like it's a long ways away."
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