A Tale of Two Thomas'May 4, 2012
The pressure cooker of pro sports can make for some strange situations, and hockey history has seen many a family battle, with gentlemen sharing the same last name going up against one another in opposing jerseys.
Most of those have been sibling clashes, with brother combinations like Phil and Tony Esposito, the Staal brothers, the Sutter clan, Scott and Rob Niedermayer, Keith and Wayne Primeau, etc., knocking heads.
The current Connecticut Whale vs. Norfolk Admirals series, though, features a father and son locking horns, in the Whale’s Christian Thomas and his dad, Steve.
Christian Thomas joined the Whale from the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League April 4 and played in Connecticut’s last five regular season games, and all four playoff contests to date. Steve Thomas is Player Development Coordinator for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Norfolk’s parent club, and while he is not an official member of the Admirals’ coaching staff, often assists Head Coach John Cooper and Assistant Coach Mike Flanagan, both in practice and behind the bench.
Game One of the Whale/Admirals series Wednesday was the first time the two Thomas men had faced each other on opposing sides. Given that his pride and joy was going to be front and center in the opponent’s lineup, Steve Thomas was conflicted, right up to the start of Wednesday’s game, about whether he should go back behind the bench.
“It’s going to be a bit odd, but I’m looking forward to it,” Steve said Wednesday morning. “It’s a hard kind of thing, but he’s playing pro hockey now and it’s what he wants to do. He’s in an environment , the playoffs, right now, luckily enough, and he’s worked hard to be in this position. So he’s made his bed, and playoff hockey’s intense, it’s played with a lot of passion, and whatever happens, happens out there. It’s beyond my control.”
So, not surprisingly, dad had some mixed feelings. The younger Thomas, on the other hand, didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the situation, although he did acknowledge its out-of-the-ordinary nature.
“It’s pretty weird seeing him on the other bench, that’s for sure,” Christian said. “He’s always coached me in minor hockey. He was on my bench, so he always helped me out, but now he’s helping out the opposition. It’s going to be pretty cool, though.”
Anyone who has kids of their own would certainly forgive Steve Thomas if he became a little distracted in this series, struggling with keeping his mind on his own job and not getting caught up in watching his son. That is a line, however, that Thomas the elder is familiar with straddling.
“I coached him in Minor Bantam, Bantam and Minor Midget, and I treated him like I would any other player,” Steve Thomas said, “and I think that’s the approach I’m going to take [in this series], for sure. More than anything I want our team to win this series, at the same time I’d really like to see my son do well.”
Competing in the heat of battle is one thing, and doing one’s best to help a loved one achieve their goals is another. Steve Thomas, a 20-year NHLer who scored 421 goals and 933 points in the Big Show, is in a great position to use not only his playing experience, but his player-development expertise, to advise Christian on the younger Thomas’ quest to succeed in the pros.
“I think it’s a big transition, playing Junior hockey and making the jump to playoff hockey in the American Hockey League,” Steve said. “You’ve got guys out here that had stints in the National Hockey League, and it’s one step closer to his goal. I think coming out of Junior, that transition, more than anything, is playing well defensively in your own zone. And I think as an offensive player, that makes it that much more of an adjustment because in Junior, it’s all about winning. Guys take chances, they cheat the game a little bit, and you just can’t do that at this level, players are too good. So that transition even becomes more magnified because it’s that defensive mode you kind of have to have yourself in, because ultimately everything starts in your own end. Play good defensive hockey, you get your offensive chances.”
For his part, the 19-year-old Christian Thomas, a second-round draftee by the New York Rangers in the 2010 NHL Draft, takes dad’s advice to heart, and is quick to give the old man credit for knowing what he’s talking about.
“He’s pretty much spot-on,” Christian said of Steve’s counsel. “He said guys (in pro) are bigger, stronger, it’s quicker and you have less time to make plays. First game, I found that out right away, and it was just a bit of adapting I had to do. I feel pretty comfortable out there right now, but playoff hockey is obviously a lot quicker, and it’s going to be a tough series.”
Christian Thomas is already a veteran of one AHL playoff battle, the Whale’s first-round sweep of Bridgeport. Although he did not get on the scoresheet in the three games, he saw significant time on right wing on the Whale’s top line with center Kris Newbury and left-wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, another great growth opportunity.
“It was tough, it was my first playoff series in the AHL and it was pretty quick, only playing five games of regular season,” Christian said, “but it was another step up, but playing with two guys like that just makes it a lot easier. They’re so good on the ice and they only help you.”
Christian Thomas, at 5-9 and 170 pounds, is similar in stature to Steve, whose playing dimensions were listed at 5-11 and 185 pounds. The son also exhibits other traits that were hallmarks of his dad’s game, like a quick, hard shot and a willingness to navigate any kind of traffic anywhere on the ice. Still, it’s not exactly like looking in the mirror for Steve when he watches Christian.
“I think he’s a different player than I was,” Steve said. “I don’t think he’s near as physical as I was. I tried to be first in on the forecheck, take the body, go to the net, go to the dirty areas, and he does that. He’s not the one that’s going to initiate a hit that’s going to put a kid through the glass or anything like that. I think he’s more of a finesse player. He shoots the puck as well, if not better, than I ever did, and I think he’s got a better skill set than I had.”
Even if that were an exaggeration of fatherly pride, it is certainly high praise, as Steve Thomas wasn’t exactly a plumber. And now he gets to try to help his own organization defend against that skill set that number 23 in a Whale jersey possesses. Conversely, the potential of having something big to crow about at the summertime family dinner table provides Christian with some extra motivation.
“I know the coach of their team and their other assistant,” Christian said, “but it would be cool, beating these guys in the playoffs, and it’s kind of like bragging rights with my dad.”
According to Steve, who had to battle his way to the NHL after being undrafted out of Junior, his young fellow already has something to hold over his head, what with having been the 40th pick his draft year.
“He’s got that on me, and he passed me last year in my goal total for the Junior levels,” Steve chuckled. “But I’ve really enjoyed watching him play, I really do. Obviously as a dad you hope your son does well, but it’s a bit of a different ballgame now. I’m with this organization and he’s over there, and like I said, I hope he does well, but at the same time I’m hoping we get through this series.”
The most important question might be, who is Christian’s mom, Lori, rooting for in this matchup?
Christian’s answer to that was rather diplomatic, as he said, “That’s a good question, hopefully she’ll be rooting for me, but she’s coming up to Connecticut for the three games there, so we’ll see what she says.”
Steve, on the other hand, harbored no illusions at all about who his wife would like to see prevail.
“She’s going to definitely be rooting for him, for sure,” the proud dad quickly conceded.
Gernander: Stay Humble, Stay Hungry
It was all but a day off for the Whale Thursday, after the 3-2 overtime win over the Admirals in Wednesday’s Game One. Most of the game participants stayed off the ice for an optional practice, while the extra players had a short skate.
The Whale coaching staff was extremely glad to have gotten the jump on the Admirals and continued the Whale’s unblemished postseason record, but was already looking ahead.
“We’ve got to stay hungry,” was Head Coach Ken Gernander’s simple message. “We’ve got to stay humble, stay hungry. One game, in and of itself, is not much in a seven-game series. So we’ve got to continue to build off where we left off the other night, but again, stay humble and stay hungry.
“It was a great start, but it’s a long journey and that’s just the first step, but we were real pleased with getting the win here in the first game.”
The Whale are now 4-0 in the playoffs, and Gernander traces the genesis for this run back to the Whale’s last game of the regular season, a 2-1 shootout loss in Syracuse in a game that was meaningless to the Whale in the standings but was huge for the Crunch.
“I’ve been saying it all along that I really admired the way our team finished the season in the game against Syracuse, and I think that set us off on the right foot,” Gernander said. “It was unfortunate that we lost in a shootout that game, but I thought we played well, played hard considering what was at stake for both teams, and it just kind of carried over into the playoffs and the guys have been doing a very good job up to now.”
The Whale had lost all four regular-season meetings against the Admirals, a team that came into Wednesday’s Game One having come out on top in 31 of its previous 32 contests. Gernander harbors no illusions that his club will not face its share of adversity as the matchup goes forward.
“It’s going to be a good, competitive series,” he said. “We had a little bit of breakdowns in our defensive zone and paid the price there and they got two (first-period) goals. You just have to go through their lineup, they’re a strong lineup and it’s going to be a good, competitive series. Nothing really struck me or stuck out, we expected a tight game and a very capable opponent, and we have to play our best hockey.”
The game-winner by Andreas Thuresson at 2:53 of overtime was a pure illustration of the value of simply getting the puck at the net. Thuresson sent about a 45-foot, off-wing half-slapshot on goal, and it hit Admiral goaltender Dustin Tokarski’s stick, deflected up over his shoulder and dropped behind him and over the goal line.
“Get pucks and bodies to the net, and good things happen,” Gernander said of the play, which capped a strong night for a line of Thuresson on right wing, Jordan Owens and center and Ryan Bourque on the left side.
“I think they’ve all stepped up their game since the playoffs have started,” said Gernander of that threesome. “Bourque, he worked hard all season long but he seems to have found another level, another gear, drew a penalty earlier in the game, he just did a lot of good things, his penalty kill has been very good for us. Jordan Owens has been an important part of the equation too, and I think they seem to have kind of formed some kind of chemistry as a line. Thuresson, I think his production is up from what it was in the regular season. So that’s great, that’s what we’re looking for.”
The Whale’s other two goals came in the first period, 12 seconds apart, which was only one second short of a team playoff record. Both goals were scored by rookies, the first by regular-season team points co-leader Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and the second by emerging offensive kingpin Marek Hrivik, his fifth in the last three games. Hrivik’s scoring play was started by fellow newbie, and former Ranger first-round pick, J.T. Miller, who got his first pro point with an assist.
“J.T. started it with a good forecheck,” Gernander said, “got in on the forecheck, created a turnover, and Wellsie (Casey Wellman) to Hrivik net-front real quick, that was great. Marchie’s (Audy-Marchessault) been doing it for us all season long, and I don’t know if you would consider Thuresson secondary scoring or somewhere in between, but a big overtime goal. So a lot of good things happened in that regard.”