CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. — Tim Thomas took a few hunting trips during his sabbatical from hockey, including one journey to Florida where he ended up snagging an alligator.
He’s back in Florida, and gators aren’t exactly on his mind this time.
Declaring himself “reborn” after more than a year off, Thomas was back on NHL ice Tuesday, working out with the Florida Panthers for the first time since agreeing to a tryout deal with the club. The goaltender with two Vezina Trophies and a Stanley Cup on his resume will accompany the Panthers starting Wednesday for their three-game, four-day road trip to Dallas, San Antonio and Tampa, Fla.
“After 14 years of pro hockey, I got tired and I needed a break,” Thomas said. “Now I’m energized and I’m looking forward to it.”
Thomas came to Florida to compete for a starting job and will only need to beat Jacob Markstrom to win that role. Markstrom has been the Panthers’ goalie of the future for some time and arrived in this camp expecting to finally be the No. 1 guy — especially with veteran Scott Clemmensen recovering from knee surgery that may keep him off the ice until next month.
Markstrom didn’t seem bothered in any way by Thomas’ arrival.
“It’s the best league in the world,” Markstrom said. “It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s going to be a fun experience and I’m really excited.”
For his part, Thomas said he is willing to help Markstrom however he can.
“I never competed against the other goalie on my team,” Thomas said. “That’s the way that people want to frame it, that it’s a competition between goalies, but that’s not the way I look at it. I’m competing against myself. And if I play the best that I can, I’m going to get the results that I want and I’m going to get the playing time that I want.”
Thomas agreed to the deal on Monday and all indications are that the tryout is a mere precursor to an actual contract for the 39-year-old goalie who was outstanding with the Boston Bruins for parts of eight seasons, posting a 2.45 goals-against average in 362 starts.
He decided to take last season off to focus on family, faith and friends, as he put it, and said Tuesday that he largely steered his mind away from hockey. Thomas didn’t even watch games during the season — until the playoffs, when the lure of watching teams compete for the Stanley Cup was something he could not ignore.
“When it came playoff time I started to watch some hockey and started to get the competitive juices flowing and I saw my former team, the Boston Bruins, have the success they had,” Thomas said. “I was so proud of those guys and what they did.”
The Bruins went to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks. It’s maybe a little ironic that Thomas wound up in Florida; his former team was two wins shy of another Cup without him, and the team that beat Boston was partially built by Dale Tallon, who now is the Panthers’ general manager.
Tallon and Thomas talked plenty over the course of the last week to get the tryout deal worked out, and Panthers coach Kevin Dineen was impressed with what he saw from the goalie in his first practice.
“As advertised,” Dineen said. “He came in and gave that high-compete level. He works on every shot and everything that I heard about him we saw in practice today, so it was a good day.”
Dineen said he’s willing to give Thomas a few days to get acclimated before putting him into game action.
Thomas has become a bit of a polarizing figure for some of his off-ice decisions, such as taking the year off when he was still under contract and skipping the Bruins’ trip to the White House after the 2011 title because of political beliefs.
He addressed it all and more Tuesday — “I’ve got better things to think about,” he said — and insisted that his focus now is more on what’s ahead than what’s already happened.
”I’m here to play hockey,” Thomas said.