Flint’s Thomas, first African-American inductee lead U.S. HHOF class
New U.S. HHOF inductees are, from left, Gary Bettman, Tim Thomas, Brian Gionta, Neal Henderson and Krissy Wendell.
Tim Thomas finally broke his five-year public silence to acknowledge a hockey honor bestowed upon him.
The Flint native is one of five members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2019, which was announced on Wednesday. He joins NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Neal Henderson, Brian Gionta and Krissy Wendell, all of whom will be enshrined on Dec. 12 in Washington D.C.
Thomas, 45, had a spectacular NHL career as a goaltender from 2002-03 and 2005-06 to 2013-14, with the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars. He didn’t make the league for good until he was 31, in 2005-06, but once he got there, he made the most of it.
Thomas led the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP along the way, to become the oldest player to win the award – at the age of 37 – and the second American to do so. He also won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender twice and was a four-time All-Star.
Thomas made news after Boston won the Cup by not accompanying the team to meet with then-President Barack Obama at the White House. After finishing his career with the Panthers and Stars in 2014, Thomas had been virtually invisible in public until Wednesday’s teleconference.
“Everybody knows that I don’t have much to say, at least publicly,” he said with a slight chuckle. “But I’m proud to receive this honor.”
Thomas said he doesn’t pay much attention to hockey these days, after winning 214 games and posting a 2.52 goals-against average and .920 saves percentage over 10 seasons.
“I don’t particularly have any relationship with the NHL whatsoever,” he said. “I feel like I learned as much as I need to learn from it. So now, I’m learning from other stuff.”
Thomas traveled a long and winding road to the NHL.
After playing four years (1993-97) at the University of Vermont, where he still holds school records with 81 wins and 3,950 saves, he played in Finland, Germany, the old International Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League and the American Hockey League for seven seasons before making his NHL debut in 2002-03. He played with the Bruins’ AHL affiliate in Providence in 2003-04, returned to Finland for the 2004-05 NHL lockout season and began 2005-06 in Providence before his final call-up to the Bruins.
Thomas hinted at why he has shunned any public life when he was asked if he would ever consider returning to Boston to attend a game.
“With the state of my nervous system since I retired, I wouldn’t honestly be able to handle the crowd,” he said.
Bettman was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto last November.
Henderson is the first African American to be voted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He founded the Fort Dupont Cannons in Washington D.C. in 1978. The Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club is the oldest minority youth hockey organization in the United States, and Henderson has served as its president from the outset.
But the 82-year-old was not able to take part in the teleconference on Wednesday, due to emergency surgery. He is fine, according to his son, Neal Henderson Jr., who spoke on his father’s behalf.
“I’m certainly honored to be able to sit in for my dad,” he said. “… He’s honored, we his children are honored, and his grandchildren are honored.”
Henderson was part of the NHL's launch of its "Hockey Is for Everyone" initiative and won the Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award in 2010.
Henderson and the Fort Dupont Hockey Club were regular visitors to Detroit during the 2000s when the Detroit Hockey Association and Clark Park Coalition annually hosted the Hockey in the Hood tournament at Jack Adams Arena in northwest Detroit and Clark Park in southwest Detroit.
Despite his 5-7 stature, Gionta played 16 seasons in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres and Boston Bruins, winning the Stanley Cup in 2003 with the Devils. He served as the captain of the Canadiens and Sabres.
After four years at Boston College from 1997-2001 in which he led the Eagles to the Frozen Four all four years and to the 2001 National Championship, Gionta had 291 goals and 595 points in 1,026 NHL games. He also represented the U.S. nine times in international competition, captaining the 2018 Olympic Team.
Wendell won two Olympic medals with the U.S. Women’s Team, a silver in 2002 and a bronze in 2006, along with leading the U.S. to its first World Championship gold medal in 2005. She led Minnesota to two NCAA Women’s National Championships and won the 2005 Patty Kazmaier Award as the top Women’s player in the country.