Cecil “Tiny” Thompson never got the chance to win back his job with the Bruins the way Tim Thomas has this fall.
The year Thompson set the Bruins’ record for best start to a season by a goaltender by winning six straight games at the outset of the 1937-38 season (a record Thomas tied tonight with a 4-0 win at Ottawa), he finished with 30 wins and a 1.80 goals-against average. However, the next season Bruins general manager/coach wanted to go with a prospect named Frank Brimsek, a latter day Tuukka Rask, instead of the 35-year-old Thompson.
Just five games into the next season, as I recount in my book 100 Things Bruins Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, Ross dealt Thompson away to make room for Brimsek. The move was unpopular at the time, among fans and players alike, but by the end of that ’38-39 season Brimsek earned the nickname “Mr. Zero” and the Bruins were Stanley Cup champions for the first time since Thompson’s rookie year of ’28-29.
It would be more than 30 years before teams would start carrying and using a second goaltender. In modern-day hockey, the Bruins might’ve kept Thompson and Brimsek together to form a formidable duo that would’ve been an amazing forerunner to the modern Thomas-Rask combination.
Thomas knows how Thompson must’ve felt. Last spring while playing through a hip injury that eventually required offseason surgery, Rask pulled ahead of Thomas in the Bruins’ goaltending pecking order. For a few weeks surrounding last June’s draft, rumors that Thomas — like Thompson some 72 years earlier — would be shipped out of town to leave a phenom as the unchallenged No. 1 netminder.
For various reasons, Thomas wound up sticking around. Boy, are the Bruins glad that general manager Peter Chiarelli didn’t venture down Ross’ road. No one should count out the 23-year-old Rask. But he might have to serve a bit of an apprenticeship as this season unfolds if Thomas keeps playing the way he has — which actually looks even better than his form of his ’08-09 Vezina Trophy-winning season.
Thomas, who historically has owned Ottawa (he’s now 17-7-2 against the Sens), lowered his season’s GAA to 0.50 with his third shutout of the season and 20th of his career. He was at his best when it was most important for Boston, with 12 saves in the first period to preserve a lead by the first intermission, and 8-for-8 on Ottawa power-play shots over the course of three pivotal man-advantages. That’s been the story all season, with Thomas one of the major reasons the Bruins have the best penalty kill in the NHL.
That ’37-38 season didn’t end great for Thompson. He won the his fourth career Vezina but allowed six goals in a three-game sweep at the hands of Toronto in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Thomas can only hope that another 6-0 start doesn’t lead to such a cruel fate come spring. While Thomas won’t be able to ever match Thompson in the shutout department (Thompson holds the Bruins career record with 74), catch him in the Vezina count or join him in the Hockey Hall of Fame, the 36-year-old now has a chance to surpass Thompson in the record books the next time he takes the ice.
Every victory adds to the notion that trading Tim Thomas was the best deal the Bruins never made.