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Bruins' Thomas has fond feelings for Finland

Thursday, 09.24.2009 / 10:51 AM / Features
NHL.com
Tim Thomas has found a home in Boston, but it wasn't too many years ago that the Bruins' goalie was the textbook definition of a journeyman.

They love their hockey over there, but it's a simple life. I don't know how to explain it, but you just seem to get more done in a day than you do here in North America. I enjoyed my time there immensely. - Tim Thomas
Before landing full-time status with Boston in 2005, Thomas called five different leagues, in four different countries, home. He played in the AHL, the ECHL, the now-defunct IHL, as well as making stopping in Finland and Sweden.

So when Tim Thomas says Helsinki is one of his favorite places, he has the worldly knowledge to lend credence to such a statement. It might help to know that Thomas kick started his career by winning a Finnish title in his first year as a pro, joining HIFK Helsinki after finishing a brilliant collegiate career at the University of Vermont.

"Winning the championship in 1998 with (current Red Wing) Brian Rafalski on the same team, too -- nothing can beat that," Thomas told NHL.com. "At that time, it was my first year and I was coming out of college. The arena I played in, it seated about 9,000 people and that was a huge crowd for me at the time."

Despite stellar numbers with the UVM Catamounts, Thomas was not drafted. Thomas knew if he wanted to achieve his dream of playing in the NHL, he would need to turn some heads as a pro. HIFK gave him the best chance to do that and he didn't think twice.

That first season, Thomas went 13-4 with a 1.86 GAA as Helsinki won the SM Liiga crown in 1998. That earned him a trip back to North America for three minor-league stops. But Thomas wasn't done with Europe yet. He played another season with HIFK and then played a year in Sweden before returning to Finland to play with Karpat, where he earned a tryout with the Bruins, gaining the break that put him on his way to superstardom.

But Thomas' European adventures were not complete. During the work stoppage, Thomas could not ignore the siren song of Finland, the place where he enjoyed some of the biggest moments of his career. This time, he joined Jokerit, HIFK's Helsinki-based rival. Again, Thomas thrived in Scandinavia. This time, he went 34-7-13 with a 1.58 GAA and .946 save percentage with 15 shutouts. He was named the league's best player and Jokerit earned the silver medal.

So it's not surprising that Thomas broke into a smile when asked what the Chicago Blackhawks and Florida Panthers can expect when they trek to Thomas' home away from home to kick off the 2009-10 regular season in the 2009 NHL Compuware Premiere Series in Helsinki. Both teams leave Friday for Europe and will play a series of games before meeting at Hartwall Arena on Oct. 2 to start back-to back regular-season games.

"They are going over in September, so it'll still be nice," Thomas told NHL.com. "Helsinki is a good city. It's just big enough that it's not too small if you know what I mean, but just big enough that it's not overwhelming.

"They love their hockey over there, but it's a simple life. I don't know how to explain it, but you just seem to get more done in a day than you do here in North America. I enjoyed my time there immensely."

Having spent so much time in Finland, Thomas was comfortable with Scandinavian culture and the Finnish people. Therefore, it was easy for him to make the most out of his time there.

"I had a lot of friends in Finland," Thomas told NHL.com. "When I went over in August and September, I was still golfing. They have some nice golf course over there.

"Other than that, I guess the big thing to do is walk around downtown and do some window shopping or eat at the restaurants. The restaurants have gotten incredibly better since I was there in 1998. Then, I basically ate McDonald's and Pizza Hut, because it was the only North American-type food I could find. Now, they just have a much bigger selection. For better or worse, it's more North American-type food now."

Thomas, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL's best goalie, has certainly found his niche in North America. But he has not forgotten the place where his NHL dream first took root and was nurtured. So, he says he will cast at least a glance at what is going on in Helsinki in the coming days -- especially Florida's exhibition against Jokerit Wednesday.

"I think it will be a big event," Thomas says of the NHL coming to Helsinki. "There are so many people that are big hockey fans there and I think they will really embrace what is happening."

Author: Shawn P. Roarke | NHL.com Managing Editor

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