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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Steve Thomas's long quick trip


Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, June 5, 2003

East Rutherford, N.J. — Just before the National Hockey League trading deadline, Chicago Blackhawks general manager Mike Smith took Steve Thomas aside as a professional courtesy and warned him that he could expect a move in the next day or so.

The Blackhawks were about to depart on a road trip to the West Coast, and Smith wanted to give Thomas some lead time to get his home life in order. Thankful for a little advance notice, Thomas asked his wife, Lori, what she thought might be the best course for the family.

Stay on in Chicago, so their children, Christian and Lauren, could finish the school year? Move, on a temporary basis, to whichever city Thomas happened to land? Or return to Toronto, where they make their off-season home and plan to settle once Thomas's career ends?

In the end, they opted for Plan C.

So Thomas headed to the West Coast to play for his new team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Christian and Lauren returned to the same schools they attended during Thomas's Leafs days, Upper Canada College and Havergal College, respectively.

After all, few outside observers thought much of the Ducks' playoff chances, especially when they drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings in the opening round. It looked as if the family would be apart for six weeks, no more.

Instead, as the Ducks unexpectedly moved through the playoffs, they lived apart for almost three months, until just last weekend. At that point, Thomas brought them all out to California, so they could watch the Mighty Ducks sweep a pair of home games and tie their best-of-seven Stanley Cup final series with the New Jersey Devils.

Thomas's family didn't make it to New Jersey for Thursday's fifth game of the series, but they spoke on the telephone the night before, which has been their habit for months now.

Thomas happened to mention that the Ducks were staying in the same New Jersey hotel as a handful of prominent rap stars — Eminem and 50 Cent. Of course, the kids had a request.

"They wanted me to go to their rooms and get an autograph for them," said Thomas.

And did he?

"Uh, no."

Thomas wanted his family with him right now, because he knows this could be his best, last chance to win the Stanley Cup. Even if Thomas's career appears rejuvenated — his overtime goal in a 1-0 Anaheim victory squared the series in Monday's fourth game — there are no guarantees that he will ever come this close again.

So Thomas is living in the moment, he and centre Adam Oates, two players who were reunited with the Ducks in March, after spending the past 21 years apart. The two, Thomas and Oates, played on the same line for the 1981-82 Markham Waxers, a team for which Thomas scored 68 goals and 125 points in only 48 games, mostly on passes from Oates. That type of production caught the Toronto Marlboros' attention, and Thomas played two years for the Marlies in the OHL, again doing what he does best — score goals. He managed 51 in 70 games and despite all the concerns about his size — Thomas is only 5-10 — he did enough to get a free-agent offer from the Maple Leafs.

"I gotta be honest," Thomas said. "Adam Oates is one of the reasons why I got a chance to play for the Marlies. And playing in the Maple Leafs' backyard gave me a free-agent opportunity. I won't say it's all Adam Oates's doing, but he had a big part in it, without a doubt.

"For me, to finish up my career with Adam is pretty special."

Thomas received what he describes as a "substantial signing bonus" for the time to join the Leafs the first time around — $17,500. His first contract was a three-year deal worth $75,000 in the first year, then increasing to $80,000 in the second, then to $85,000 in the third. His salary dropped to $25,000 in the minors, where Thomas spent most of his first pro season, playing in St. Catharines.

The next year, Thomas played 65 games for the Maple Leafs and then rattled off another 14 points in 10 NHL playoff games. From then on, he was an NHLer to stay. He made a trip to the Stanley Cup semi-finals with Chicago in 1989-90 (before losing to Edmonton) and then again with the New York Islanders in 1992-93 (before losing to Montreal).

This then represents the deepest he has ever gone in the NHL playoffs to date and the message, repeated almost daily to his younger teammates, is consistent:

Stay committed and focussed because the chance to go down this path doesn't come along every day.

"What they (Thomas and Oates) do is share their experience and knowledge," Ducks coach Mike Babcock said. "You could coach or play in the league forever and you might never get back here. Bryan Murray (the Ducks' GM) has been in the league 22 years and he's never been this far. So we want to make good on our opportunity."

Thomas has built a career on scoring important goals. His 13 career regular-season overtime goals is a league high, and he has added two others in the playoffs.

"Something like that just gives you so much confidence," he said. "When things aren't going well and you're going to the net for a rebound, the puck doesn't come out to you. It always squirts out the other side. You know you're starting to get your confidence back when pucks gravitate towards you. I think that's happening. It's happening in practice as well. That, in itself, gives me confidence to think things are going a little better."

The only way they could get better still?

If Thomas is cradling what he calls "that long silver thing" in the days ahead. With his family, in the dressing room, helping to celebrate, of course. ROBTv Workopolis