Keeping Score

Hockey Grieves: Bruins Goalie Tim Thomas Reflects

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Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins raises the Stanley Cup before the start of the victory parade on June 18, 2011 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, the bearded breakout star of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, has enjoyed the afterglow of his team’s championship. His kids have gone bobbing for apples in the Cup. Thomas has thrown a couple of Stanley Cup parties. “It’s like planning two weddings,” he says. When he went to a Red Sox game last week, David Ortiz made a special request to see him. “When I was around the other Boston teams, it was always a little bit awkward,” says Thomas, in an interview during the NHL’s preseason media tour in New York City. “We were one step below. Now, we’re on the same playing field. I felt more comfortable talking to David Ortiz than I was talking to those type of guys in previous situations. I didn’t feel like I was better than him. I felt like I was on the same level.”

As if leading the Bruins to their first Cup in 39 years wasn’t surreal enough, at the NHL awards show in Las Vegas a few days after Boston’s victory, some skinny guy with long hair approached Thomas on the red carpet. “He was like, ‘hey, congratulations,” says Thomas, who was MVP of last season’s playoffs. ‘I followed your career the whole way, this and that.’” I was like, ‘thanks.’ He was like, ‘you don’t remember me, do you?’” I’m like, ‘no.’” He goes, ‘I lived on your floor freshman year, at the University of Vermont, two doors town from you.’” I was like, ‘Tex?’ And I never put two and two together that this guy was Dierks Bentley, the country singer. It was pretty cool.’”

(PHOTOS: The Vancouver Hockey Riots)

While Thomas is reveling in his new fame, he’s not immune to the shocks hitting hockey. During the 2011 offseason, tragedy marred the sport. Wade Belak, a recently-retired defensemen for the Nashville Predators, died of an apparent suicide on August 31.  Just two weeks before that, Rick Rypien, the former Vancouver Canucks player who had just signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets, and had a long struggle with depression, also killed himself. In May Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers, who had a history of substance abuse problems, died of an accidental of painkillers and alcohol. All of these players were all ‘enforcers,” the tough guys tasked to protect the more skilled players, and to get into frequent fights.

To make things worse, last Tuesday an airplane carrying Lokomotiv Yaroslavi, a team in the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), crashed shortly after takeoff in western Russia. Only two people survived: 43 people, including several ex-NHL players, died.

When Thomas heard the horrible plane crash news, he immediately scanned the roster, looking to see if he knew any of the players personally. He did not, but found out that one Lokomotiv Yaroslavi player was close with Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “I immediately thought of the impact of something like this must have on Zdeno,” Thomas says.  “And I put myself in his shoes, trying to relate. It’s a mixed jumble of emotions, it is a tragedy, it’s terrible.”

Thomas revealed that many years ago, his agent has actually talked to Lokomotiv Yaroslavi officials about the goaltender joining the team. “I had heard stories about guys who played in the KHL, about the type of planes they were flying around on,” Thomas says. They were subpar: the doomed jet was part of an aging Soviet-era fleet.

(READ: Russian Plane Crash Kills 43 on Board, Including KHL Hockey Players)

The deaths of the three enforcers have forced hockey to think hard about redefining that role. In May, Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) discovered that former enforcer Bob Probert had CTE, a degenerative brain disease found in victims who have suffered repeated blows to the head. (Probert died of heart failure in July of 2010). The Boston University center is also studying Boogaard’s brain. Symptoms of CTE include depression and memory loss. If hockey violence is possibly linked with brain damage, shouldn’t the NHL try to eliminate fighting, and the “enforcer” position, altogether?

Thomas, however, cautions against immediately overhauling the game. “I think it’s important not to draw any conclusions from these incidents,” Thomas says. “Those are three separate cases. I mean, MMA fighters get hit in the head on a consistent basis. Not just in their main fights, but on a daily basis. And there hasn’t been a run of tragedies in that field. The reality is that you may never know what happened from those individual cases.”

Once the pucks drop, maybe hockey will start healing. The NHL season starts on October 6 If the NBA is still mired in a work stoppage, the NHL has a chance to win over some basketball fans. Not that Thomas is keeping an eye on hoops. “I hadn’t really thought about it,” Thomas says. “Because, you know, the reality is they might be back and playing in time. I don’t think that’s as a player, as a league, the focus should be on taking advantage of this opportunity. I think we just need to kind of go along the road we’ve been going on along. The popularity of our game, our overall revenue has been increasing every year over the past few years, even in a down economy. We’ve been fortunate enough to have had a good Olympics in North America. The last few Stanley Cup finals have been very exciting. Last year was a very exciting, very entertaining playoffs. I just think we need to focus doing well on what we’re doing well, rather than what the NBA is doing.”

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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