If there is going to be an overarching theme to this upcoming NHL offseason, it will be the shifting around of netminders throughout the league. Whether it’s speculation over where Roberto Luongo will be taking his act next season, questioning why the Pittsburgh Penguins would sign Tomas Vokoun to a deal before free agency even began, or if the LA Kings will shed Jonathan Bernier to get some new assets to bolster their apparently Stanley Cup winning roster, there are a slew of scenarios that are going to be playing out over the next few months.
One of those scenarios was expected to be revolving around the fate of Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, but he seems to have made that decision for his team. Rather than forcing them to choose between him and Tuukka Rask as the team’s primary guy between the pipes going forward, Thomas announced on his facebook page that he will be taking a year off from the league in order to “reconnect with his friends, family, and faith.” He has one year remaining on a contract that would have paid him $3 million in the 2012-13 season, but even though he won’t be suiting up for the Bruins, his $5 million cap hit will remain because of a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that ensures players over 35 count against the salary cap even if they retire.
This decision, of course, touched off a huge firestorm of controversy around one of the best American goalies to ever play the game. People have directed their ire at him because he has refused to play out the string despite saddling his team with a $5 million cap hit that they cannot afford to have while trying to improve the club, and still others have lavished him with praise for ignoring potential haters and putting his priorities in the right place.
Whether or not those folks are correct will be saved for a bit later in the column, but before we delve into that further, it would behoove us to get the answer to another question facing Thomas: why should he be chastised for the political beliefs that he holds?
For the few hockey fans that don’t know, Thomas’ ideology came into sharp focus in the days following his decision not to attend a ceremony at the White House with President Barack Obama during the season. The team went to the executive mansion to be honored for winning the Cup in 2011, but Thomas did not go because of his disagreement over Obama’s stances on the issues, most notably on forcing Catholic organizations to offer birth control as part of their health insurance packages for employees. He was roundly criticized in most corners for not sucking up his pride and not showing respect for the highest elected office in the world, but there were still others who defended him exercising what they termed to be “free speech.”
Regardless of which side of that particular argument you fall on, a simple question needs to be asked: why should it matter what any athlete believes? After all, we live in a nation that was founded on the principle that people with different opinions should be able to engage in a constructive dialogue with one another and arrive at reasoned conclusions. In today’s day and age, “compromise” seems to have become a dirty word when it comes to our politicians, but the fact of the matter is that this drift from our nation’s founding has consequences that extend beyond the halls of governmental power.
We routinely assail and mock those who believe different things politically from us, whether it’s calling all Democrats “baby killers” or chastising Republicans as “racist sexist pigs.” Both of these descriptions may apply to the fringes of both parties, but they are simply stereotypes reinforced by the talking heads that populate our cable news networks. This coarsening of the national dialogue can be clearly seen in the Thomas situation, and it’s a bit ironic, to be completely frank.
Yes, his views may not be palatable to some, but aren’t we as sports fans constantly complaining that athletes are a product of their agents, completely devoid of personality and sanitized to avoid doing anything controversial that could upset sponsors? These automatons are the subject of scorn themselves, but when it comes to Thomas, people are quick to deride him for sharing his views on Facebook and in the public square in general. Shouldn’t we be praising him instead of insulting him for sharing his thoughts on matters with us?
The answer to this conundrum is simple. If you want to debate Thomas’ views, then that’s fine. If you think that health insurance should include birth control, say so. If you don’t, then say so. Resorting to name calling and insisting that Thomas shut up is not the appropriate solution, and all it does is contribute to the ridiculousness that has infected this nation’s politics.
As for the subject of Thomas sitting out the 2012-13 season, the same principle can be applied. If you want to argue that he should have stuck it out for his teammates, or simply retired and end all this speculation that he is trying to force a trade, then that’s one thing. If you insist on dredging up the political issue as a hammer to whack him over the head with, then you are doing yourself a disservice as you try to make your argument. It’s silliness to say that the two situations are connected in any other way than both were confirmed by Thomas with Facebook posts, and people trying to make that argument should not be taken seriously.
The notion Thomas should be shunned for taking a break from the league doesn’t really hold water. It is not his fault that the CBA has language in it that keeps cap hits on the books for guys over 35 even if they retire, and trying to blame him solely for Boston’s lack of cap flexibility is an exercise in futility.
Instead of focusing solely on on-ice issues, as some fans seem wont to do, Thomas should instead be held up as a role model in an era where athletes are portrayed most of the time as selfish primadonnas. Thomas has decided that he wants to put his family first (assuming that this isn’t some devious plot to force a trade, which at this point it doesn’t seem to be), and he should be commended. A lot of folks on the conservative side of the political spectrum talk a good game about the sanctity of marriage (Newt Gingrich, cough), but then turn around and deny that rhetoric by the way they live their lives. Thomas seems to be walking the walk in this regard, and if he wants to make sure that his relationships are on the up-and-up, then we should be saying “more power to you”, rather than taking cheap slaps at him.
If you ever go through a transcript of postgame comments by just about any professional athlete or coach, you could probably go through and mark off huge sections to denote all the clichés that they speak in. At this point, everyone is so afraid of saying the wrong thing and either irritating his own teammates or guys on the opposing team that they stick to stuff like “we just wanted it more tonight”, or any other phrase that you’ve heard seven billion times. Off the playing field, they are still guarded in their answers, spicing up standard answers with occasional glimpses into their psyche and redefining what “candid” actually means when it comes to interviews.
Tim Thomas, on the other hand, isn’t a guy who seems to have a filter between his brain and his mouth. This refreshing change of pace from what we are used to in today’s sports world should be celebrated, but instead there are fans who seem to be perfectly content to bash him rather than celebrate the fact he is willing to speak his mind. When you couple that willingness to talk with the old-fashioned manner in which he plays the game, you have a throwback athlete that could easily be an endearing figure if his primary source of off-the-wallness (not a word, we know) are his political convictions.
Even still, rather than being viewed as some type of crackpot theorist, Thomas should be considered one of the most unique athletes in professional sports today. Guys like him don’t come along every day, and even though people are quick to dismiss him, the game of hockey is lucky to have him around. Love him or hate him, he makes things a lot more interesting whenever he is in the news, and the hockey world could use more guys like him.