LAS VEGAS — If there’s one common link between the Boston Bruins’ three award winners who were honored tonight at the 2009 NHL Awards ceremony at The Palms Casino and Resort, it’s perseverance in the face of naysayers and doubters.
Tim Thomas had to prove himself over and over for a decade on two different continents before he was given an NHL shot. Zdeno Chara had to convince people on two continents that someone as tall as some of the world’s biggest basketball players could succeed on ice. And Claude Julien had to rebound after two confusing firings before taking over the Bruins and turning around the franchise’s fortunes.
Tonight Thomas was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender, Chara won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and Julien captured the Jack Adams Trophy as the coach of the year in the NHL.
The Vezina is voted on by the 30 NHL general managers, a bit of an irony considering five years ago many of them passed on Thomas when he went through waivers on his way to Boston.
“I bet you, if you ask a lot of them, they’re glad to be proved wrong. When you’re judging a person on talent or ability, it’s hard,” said Thomas in the aftermath of his presentation. “And sometimes you’ve got to make difficult decisions. I’m very happy that I made it through waivers because maybe I wouldn’t be here today. It seems like I was meant to end up in Boston and it’s worked out great.”
Thomas, who led the league in goals-against average and save percentage, was a bit choked up during his speech. And that’s a credit to not only his sincere appreciation of the award but also his grasp on the history of the trophy.
“I kind of didn’t allow myself to think that I might win — first all because of the names on the list, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur. I was looking at them just today,” Thomas said. “It’s humbling. The goalies that have won it before are so good, it’s hard to put yourself on that level in your head.”
For Chara, who now stands at 6-foot-9 and was always among the tallest athletes in his age group, he was told not to pursue hockey by just about everyone in his native Slovakia — except for his family, New York Rangers scout Jan Gajdosik and junior coach Jan Novotny.
“To me, it was something that I really found something in hockey that I absolutely loved. I loved to be on the ice when there is 95 degrees outside and be cold. The speed of the game and scoring goals, I loved everything about it,” Chara recalled. “As a kid, you play for fun and then it gets to the point when the only better ones get chosen to get to the next levels. In my case, it was a little bit harder because when saw somebody who is really tall and trying to play hockey, they said it’s nice that you play hockey but you should probably switch sports, you should probably quit, because nobody’s this big and plays hockey.”
The doubts didn’t end back home. He was a throw-in in a trade the New York Islanders made to get Alexei Yashin from Ottawa, and then the Sens let him leave for Boston as a free agent. It all culminated this season with a Norris win, ending Detroit blueliner Nicklas Lidstrom’s reign at three straight years. Chara had been a finalist two previous times.
“You look at the nominations. Every year, it’s very tough. Nick is there every year and obviously somebody has a breakout season. This time it was Mike (Green). And Mike is such a talented guy. I’m sure in the future he’s going to be probably winning the trophy. And obviously Nick is such an icon that I look up to him so much. Every time I’m around him, I’m nervous,” Chara said.
For Julien, his tenure in Montreal ended just a few months into a season that came on the heels of taking the Canadiens to the second round of the playoffs before the lockout. And then in New Jersey he was unceremoniously dumped by the Devils with the team in first place and the playoffs right around the corner. A third chance in Boston has proven to be a perfect fit and Julien still doesn’t hold a grudge.
“I don’t see those things that way. There’s a lot of coaches that have moved around in the league. You kind of accept it for what it is,” he explained. “You’re still seeing it to this day. There’s a guy that just won a Stanley Cup (Dan Bylsma with Pittsburgh) that came in halfway through the year. Those things happen. I think it’s important when you go into an organization and then you leave it, that you’re able to separate the business side of it from the personal side of it. And that’s why I keep saying that everywhere I’ve been I’ve been treated extremely well and I still have good relationships with the people I work with.”
In some ways, those firings have helped mold Julien into the coach that he is today. This season, he led the Bruins to the best record in the Eastern Conference and the club won a round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
“You can get fired and start second-guessing yourself. Or you can get fired and say, ‘you know. Don’t doubt your abilities to do the job. Bounce back and get back,’” Julien said. “Having said that, everywhere you go, you learn something. If you learn along the way. I think a coach that think he doesn’t have anything left to learn should get out of the game.”
It’s impossible to please everyone, so there will still be those that don’t hold the accomplishments of Thomas, Chara and Julien in high regard. After all, between the three there have been no Stanley Cup wins yet. But the trio is going to work hard to try and change that. And considering what they’ve accomplished to this point, there’s no way you can doubt they can get it done.