Thomas takes long way to NHL

by Mike Ulmer

Steve Thomas, an honorary captain for the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic, never did say goodbye to the NHL.

The 20-year NHL veteran scored 118 goals in 377 games for the Maple Leafs. He didn’t bother with a press conference when the lockout washed away the 2004-2005 season.

Even though his years in Toronto were among the happiest and most productive of his career, he wanted to keep his departure lower case.

“I didn’t want the press conference. I figured the lockout happened, and it was one of those things where you just sail off into the sunset,” he said.

The 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic will be played Jan. 28-29 at Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto. He played in the AHL with the St. Catharines Saints and then graduated to the Leafs for the first of two stints. For Thomas, the road to the NHL and 421 NHL regular-season goals was anything but easy.

“We immigrated to Canada from England in 1967 when I was four. I was never drafted for junior, never drafted in the NHL. I always had the desire and the will and I guess the heart to do whatever I had to do to get the opportunity.”

Thomas was at turns too small, too green and then, eventually, too old. It was all, he said, for the good.

“I think when there is adversity through your hockey playing life and you go through life proving yourself to everybody, you get a grasp on what it takes to go to the next level. I tell the young kids, whatever team you play on, it’s really tough to make a top end team and it’s tougher to stay there. You can’t be happy just to be there, you have to compete every night.”

The first break for Thomas came when he caught on with the Toronto Marlies junior team. The Marlies played an afternoon doubleheader at Maple Leaf Gardens and Maple Leafs personnel could watch Thomas at their leisure. They signed Thomas as a free agent, and in 1985, he was the American Hockey League’s rookie of the year.

“I thought the AHL was a great stepping stone for me to learn the game a little better, to mature,” he said. “We only had 13 players on our roster. We were getting beat up every night.

“There was no lack of ice time. I played with an unbelievable player named Wes Jarvis who recognized I could shoot the puck and gave me every chance to do that.”

He carried his work ethic through the AHL into the big leagues.

“I was on a team with the Leafs that was pretty lean at the time. Throughout the career, it was totally up to me, nobody else. Nobody was pumping my tires. I had to do it myself. I think it boiled down to having the will to be successful and that’s kind of how I go through life.”

Thomas also played with Chicago, the Islanders, New Jersey, Detroit and with an Anaheim team that went to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final in 2003.

“I was only there for three months, but just having the opportunity to compete in the finals and to go as far as we did, to the seventh game where we lost 3-0, it was a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “Even today, I put the garbage out on the street and it will pop into your head, ‘Jeez, seventh game…losing.’ To have a Stanley Cup ring on my finger would have capped it all off.”

Thomas is coaching his son’s bantam team and acts as a part-time mentor/coach with the St. Michael’s Buzzers. He works for a company that does promotional logos on jackets.

The name of the outfit is perfect for Steve Thomas: plain and simple.

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