As he stood skate-to-skate with Montreal’s Carey Price in front of a sellout crowd in February, Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas felt what it was like to be in the cage—adrenaline flowing, hairs standing on end, trying to calculate what his opponent’s next move would be. It’s not every day that a goalie gets to fight. However, Thomas knows there’s a big difference.
“Hockey fighting is different than regular fighting. You can’t throw both hands without losing your balance,” Thomas jokes. “The experience was pretty surreal. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I was thinking about MMA fights.”
Although his role is to stop pucks in front of the cage as opposed to throwing fists in it, Thomas has had MMA on his mind for more than a decade, first watching early UFC events on VHS tapes with his younger brother. That has translated into a more hardcore addiction, as Thomas routinely watches any action he can, recording pay per-views while he’s minding net for one of the NHL’s best teams.
“Even during the season when we play at home, I watch the fights the same night,” Thomas says. “My wife hates it because I stay up too late, but I don’t want to wait until Sunday because there are a lot of MMA fans on our team—including Shawn Thornton, Zdeno Chara, and Milan Lucic—and I don’t want any spoilers.”
The Michigan native grew up around combat sports, primarily boxing. His grandfather was a trainer and everyone from his father to his cousins strapped on the gloves at varying amateur levels. He knew striking, but watching those early UFC tapes, Thomas gained a respect for Royce Gracie’s jiu-jitsu skills and learned to love the ground game. Actually, that was ingrained a bit earlier in life.
“As a kid, I got into a fight with a wrestler. He was bigger than me, but he couldn’t fight. He took me down, and I could not getup,” Thomas says. “I gained an appreciation right there for wrestling, and to later see Gracie’s BJJ—I got hooked on the ground game right away.”
The man who just turned 37 years old has a unique perspective on MMA, both as a professional athlete and a fan.
“Fighting, like any sport, is very mental, so I like to see how these guys approach it,” says Thomas. “I liked watching TUF 12 and seeing how GSP was always trying to be positive, as opposed to Josh Koscheck who was more old-school,” Thomas says. “I’ve come across both styles of coaching over the course of my career, and it’s interesting to see that play out on television in MMA.”
The 2009 Vezina Trophy winner for best NHL goaltender also likes Anderson Silva, acknowledging the questions most fans share about which Silva they’ll get on any given night. However, Thomas finds himself in potentially the same situation more than 50 times a season, as he is the last line of defense in a game that often comes down to the man between the pipes.
“Fighters only have their big night once every three months,” he says. “As a pro athlete, you’re not always competing at your best. Out of 10 games, seven of them, I feel really good. The other three, I might not be feeling my best, but you can’t tell on television. I think that happens to some of these fighters too. Against Chael Sonnen, Anderson said he had hurt ribs going into the fight. As an athlete, I can relate with competing injured and how it can take away from your game. But these guys do it anyway because they’re tough. They’ve got to be the best athletes in the world. In hockey, you train in specific areas, but in MMA, you have to have it all—strength, speed, endurance, flexibility, and you still have to use your mind in everything you do.”
If the 2010 U.S. Olympian meets a fellow goalie in a scrap again, let’s just say that he’s going to be using his mind to think ahead. “Next time,” Thomas says with a laugh, “I’ll try to use the other guy’s jersey as a gi and choke him like Royce Gracie did.”