The Heart of A True Champion
Tim Thomas was a champion long before he raised the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night in Vancouver. He wasn’t a champion because of any trophy he’d won or any of the previous accolades, awards or honours he had been rewarded. Being a true champion is something that can never be handed to you in the form of a cup, plate, medal or trophy. It is something that has to do with WHO YOU ARE, it is about character.
There is a tendency in many professional sports these days to make everything about winning the ultimate prize, whether it is the World Series, Superbowl, NBA Championship or the Stanley Cup. Players like Lebron James feel that their legacy will never be complete without it, and not just one, but multiple championships. What is all too often lacking, however, is the focus on the journey, and the integrity of that journey. How do you get there? Even more important than the integrity of that journey is your integrity as a person. Without that, trophy or no trophy, championship or not, you will never be a true champion.
Michael “Pinball” Clemons won 3 Grey Cups with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL; he won another as their head coach. Pinball set numerous team records as well as CFL records. Yet, if you were to ask Pinball what makes him successful he wouldn’t cite these achievements. Pinball would tell you, “Show me a good father and there you will find a successful man.” To Clemons the success of a person can’t be found in records and trophies, it is to be found in your integrity as a person.
Too many people think and feel that they will be ‘happy’ or finally be somebody if they win the big prize, or get the big promotion, or if this or that thing goes well for them. However, all too often, they find that after whatever it is has been achieved, the loneliness or brokenness remains, or creeps back into their life. True joy can’t be found that way, only in a “Truly Rebellious” life that is about loving, honouring, respecting and dignifying both yourself and the people around you. That’s why Doc in the great animated film Cars replies to Lightning McQueen who has discovered that he is the famed Hudson Hornet and multiple time winner of The Piston Cup, “All I see is an empty cup.” McQueen’s own life reflects that, tonnes of talent and he is well on the road to success, but his life is empty, no real friends, no one to love or be loved by. When he discovered those things, the care and love of a community, the Piston Cup didn’t matter so much anymore, and it certainly wasn’t worth as much as his integrity. Love is the driving force behind any true champion and Cars portrays that message after McQueen stops short of the victory to help The King and push him over the finish line on his last race after he was wrecked. Chick Hicks wins the race but everyone in the stadium knew who the true champion was that day.
We hear the stories of athletes like Eric Lindros who refused to play in Quebec. We hear Vince Carter admit to not giving his all while playing in Toronto. We continue to hear the prominent message in many sports is that championships are all that matter. Inundated by such messages, it is important for us to hear the voices and applaud the stories of true champions who bring character, integrity, gratitude and joy into the arena of sport; like Pinball Clemons, and yes, like Lightning McQueen.
Ernie Banks was a two-time MVP, gold-glove winner and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. Ralph Burris writes about him in The Major League Baseball Blog;
Looking past the numbers to the intangibles of attitude and enthusiasm for the game, the greatness of a player cannot be judged merely on statistics. Ernie Banks is one such player in MLB history. Ernie Banks was one of the greatest players, coaches and personalities to ever don a Cubs Uniform. Considered by many to be the most popular player ever, Banks was known to be a likable fellow. He was easy-going and was a friend to everyone he knew. Some sources say that he originated the phrase “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Banks was quiet and unassuming. He let his bat and his glove do the talking for him. He had an unending enthusiasm for the game of baseball. As the legend goes, after the Cubs finished getting stomped twice in a double-header, Ernie Banks reportedly suggested; “let’s play three.” On numerous occasions, Banks was quoted as having said; “It’s a beautiful day for a baseball game. Let’s play two!” Any picture of Ernie Banks from his playing days exudes the joy he derived from playing the game of baseball. There are none that don’t feature that broad, infectious smile that he has become famous for. He was so popular, in fact, he became known as Mr. Cub. Many sources attribute the never-say-die and “baseball is fun” attitude of the Cubs organization directly to Ernie Banks.
Ernie Banks never won a championship. Ernie Banks didn’t seem to care. He loved playing baseball and was grateful to be able to do it and gave it his all every game. His legacy is not one of World Series victories, but of his attitude and passion and character. He was known to say that he would win over those who didn’t seem to like him with kindness. No championship could make this man greater. This is a true champion.
Tim Thomas grew up just outside of Flint, Michigan. Like many in that area, his parents often had difficulty maintaining work and particularly having the extra money needed to support a blossoming young hockey player. In one instance Tim’s parents pawned their wedding rings in order to afford sending Tim to a hockey tournament. Great sacrifice to support their son. Not because one day he would be a professional and arguably the best goaltender in the NHL, just because he loved hockey.
That love for hockey would be evident as Thomas would run up against roadblock after roadblock in his career but never give up. Thomas experienced a lot of success as a goalie in College in Vermont (playing with Martin St.Louis) and was drafted by The Quebec Nordiques. However, cracking an NHL roster proved difficult. His rights moved to Edmonton Oilers and then to the Bruins where he played two seasons for the Providence Bruins from 2002-2004. During this time he played a handful of games for the Boston Bruins when the need arose, including a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. I remember watching that game with my wife and friends of ours and I commented about how much I liked this goalie. He played with passion, emotion and a never-quit, never-give-up attitude. I remember sharing that I hoped I would see a lot more of this goalie.
It almost didn’t happen.
The NHL lockout came and Thomas played that year in Finland where he won the award for best player in the league. He considered staying and playing in Finland for the 2005-2006 season. His contract with the Bruins was over and no one was calling. He was already in his 30s and it looked as if the opportunity to be an NHL goalie may have passed. Even after the Bruins did come with an offer Thomas thought of staying in Finland as Boston had what seemed to be a solid tandem in Andrew Raycroft (who had just won the Calder as rookie of the year) and Hannu Toivenen (another highly ranked prospect). However, he decided to take the offer and see what happened and was assigned to the Providence team yet again out of training camp.
Usually injuries to a team are a bad thing. In retrospect injuries to Raycroft and Toivenen ended up being a blessing in disguise. Thomas was called up to fill in for the ailing net minders and posted a very respectable record, save percentage and goals against average for a rebuilding Bruins team that had just traded away their superstar, Joe Thornton. He was voted by fans to receive the “Seventh Player Award” that goes to a player who exceeded expectations. The Bruins signed him to a three year contract extension.
Thomas’ battle to prove himself didn’t end there however.
2006-2007: Hannu Toivenen is the expected starter for the Bruins, but Thomas outplays him and posts even better numbers than the previous year. He is awarded the “Seventh Player Award” yet again.
2007-2008: Bruins acquire Manny Fernandez to be their number one goalie. Fernandez gets injured early in the year and Thomas again seizes the reigns. He is named to the All-Star team as a replacement for Martin Brodeur.
2008-2009: Thomas is finally the undisputed starter in Boston. An All-star for the second time, he also wins the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie. Fernandez and he also earn the Jennings for giving up the fewest goals in the league. Thomas receives a big money 3 year deal from the Bruins.
In 2009-2010 Tim Thomas experienced a hip-flexor injury and struggled in net. He lost the starting job to Tuukka Rask who also started every game in the playoffs. In the off-season many Bruins fans clamoured for Thomas and his large contract to be traded to another team. The Bruins entertained several options but ultimately decide to keep Thomas (which is what this writer wanted). In the off-season Tim Thomas has the necessary surgery for his hip to heal.
Through all of these ups and downs Thomas kept a very level head. He never felt that anyone owed him anything and was only to willing to year after year to earn his spot and earn his playing time. He was given the great privilege of never being able to take it for granted that he would have a started job in the NHL. He worked hard with that never-give-up attitude. And yet through it all, the thing that continued to define Tim Thomas the best is the huge smile that can be seen on his face in moments of every game.
Heading into this season, yet again Tim Thomas was expected to be a back-up. However, right from the beginning of the season the now 37 year old Thomas seized the reigns yet again by playing stellar game after stellar game and making unbelievable saves. With his hip healed, Thomas played the best hockey of his career and posted a NHL record save percentage as well as being named as a finalist again for the Vezina trophy and making his third all-star team. This all led us to this post-season where Thomas posted incredible numbers on the way to his first Stanley Cup and winning the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the 2011 playoffs.
That is quite a journey for this kid from a lower middle-class family just outside of Flint, Michigan. But while I was going nuts about the Bruins winning the Cup I was amazed by this man yet again during his CBC interview after hoisting the Stanley Cup and being asked about how far he’d come since playing in Finland;
“I was happy playing where I was playing. I was playing in a very good league and I had a lot of good friends over there. I’m very happy that I made the decision to come back. It was a tough decision at the time, but it paid off in the long run in this case. Having said that I would have been happy playing my whole career over there.”
WHAT?!?! How can you say that Tim? Here you are, a Stanley Cup champion! Conn Smythe trophy winner! You have just achieved the ultimate prize and everyone is recognizing just how great you are! This is what it is all about! How can you even conceive of playing crappy hockey in Finland and missing out on all of this? You would have been happy playing your whole career in Finland?
During the same celebration while Thomas is being interviewed a little girl ran to him across the ice and yelled out the word, “Daddy!” The interview was over as Thomas replied, “There she is!” and picked up his daughter and skated away.
That is an image of a true champion who knows what is really important. It is also an image of what makes a man truthfully able to be happy playing in Finland his whole career and never winning a Stanley Cup. Well, now Tim has a Stanley Cup (and a playoff MVP to boot), but that Cup doesn’t make him a greater man or a greater hockey player. Like Pinball Clemons and Ernie Banks, Tim Thomas plays for the love of the game, but lives for something greater.
The Stanley Cup may to some come to define Thomas’ career. But it will never define his true legacy. Tim Thomas is one of those athletes that seem to be more and more hard to find. He gives his all, plays with passion and determination and emotion, but doesn’t do it for championships. He plays that way in practice; he would play that way if his whole career was spent in Finland. He is an example of someone who is grateful to be where he is and knows what is truly important in life. Winning the Stanley Cup is amazing! However, at the end of the day, it’s just an empty cup and Thomas’ joy comes from the fact that he knows there are things that are more important, and he lives for those things. Tim Thomas is a man of character and integrity, of gratitude and joy... a true champion.