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Top Stories of 2012, No. 6: B’s Tim Thomas stirs up political controversy, announces sabbatical from hockey

12.28.12 at 11:18 am ET
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Over the final week of 2012, WEEI.com will count down the top 10 stories of the year in Boston sports. This entry in the countdown is No. 6: Tim Thomas’ political controversy and sabbatical.

Check out our previous entries:
No. 10: NHL lockout
No. 9: Wes Welker’s up-and-down year
No. 8: Bruins’ early playoff elimination
No. 7: Ray Allen’s departure from Celtics

Tim Thomas made headlines throughout 2012, first for his outspoken political views and later for his decision to take a year off from hockey. (AP)

A championship team’s visit to the White House usually doesn’t draw major headlines. In almost every case, players take photos with the president, speak with him for a few minutes, and come away talking about the memorable day they had. But when Tim Thomas decided not to join the rest of the Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Washington in January, the narrative changed.

As he posted on Facebook later that day, Thomas — a Michigan native whose helmet at the time read “Don’t tread on me” — declined the invitation because he believes the federal government infringes too much on citizens’ rights.

His Jan. 23 statement read:

I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People. This is being done at the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.

Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL. This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT.

Bruins president Cam Neely then released a statement on behalf of the organization:

“As an organization we were honored by President Obama’s invitation to the White House. It was a great day and a perfect way to cap our team’s achievement from last season. It was a day that none of us will soon forget. We are disappointed that Tim chose not to join us, and his views certainly do not reflect those of the Jacobs family or the Bruins organization. This will be the last public comment from the Bruins organization on this subject.”

Thomas was a crucial part of the 2011 Cup-winning team, finishing the playoffs with a .940 save percentage and winning both the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies. He was the first goalie since 1975 to win both of those trophies and the Cup in the same year, and he sealed the title-clinching win with a 37-save shutout in Game 7 in Vancouver.

The rest of the Bruins fielded questions about Thomas’s absence all day until his statement was released. Team captain Zdeno Chara had been informed that morning that Thomas wouldn’t be attending, but the defenseman said he had no comment on the matter.

In spite of the snub, President Obama spoke highly of Thomas’s postseason performance.

“This Stanley Cup was won by defense as much as by offense,” Obama said. “Tim Thomas posted two shutouts in the Stanley Cup finals and set an all-time record for saves in the postseason, and he also earned the honor being only the second American ever to be recognized as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP.”

Fans on both sides reacted strongly to Thomas’ stand. Some who shared his views praised him for expressing his beliefs, while others noted that regardless of politics, Thomas had drawn the spotlight to himself on a day that was supposed to be about his team.

The controversy lingered around Thomas for the rest of the regular season. Then, after the Bruins lost to the Capitals in seven games in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, Thomas announced his plan to take a sabbatical from hockey for the 2012-13 season. He said he wanted to “reconnect with his friends, family and faith” and needed a year off to do so, despite having only a year left on his contract with the Bruins.

Thomas’s cap hit for this season would have been $5 million, and the Bruins would still have been responsible for it if this season had been played as usual (although Thomas would not have collected the money). Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli also could have tolled the contract forward, so that Thomas would instead be under contract for 2013-14. However, it’s unclear whether or not the Bruins would want to be responsible for paying $5 million to a 39-year-old Thomas coming off of a lost season.

Thomas’ age isn’t a career-ending problem, given that he only truly broke into the league at age 31 and is known for his conditioning. But he likely would have to negotiate a new contract with the Bruins, or with another team willing to take him on at least initially in a starter’s role. Thomas has never played an NHL game for anyone other than the Bruins.

Had the lockout not occurred, the Bruins would have gone into the season with a goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, both of whom are spending the lockout playing overseas.

Rask shined when Thomas was injured in 2009-10, posting a .931 save percentage, a 1.97 goals-against average and five shutouts in 45 starts. Since then, he’s started only 52 games in the last two years with a .924 save percentage to show for it — certainly not problematic, but as he shared time with Thomas, not as bold a statement as he made two years ago.

“There’s not much we can do,” Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron told ESPN Boston regarding Thomas’s break in June. “It’s his decision and if he wants to spend more time with his family, obviously we understand that. He was great for us, but we feel confident in Tuukka, for sure.

“I wish him all the best and time to regroup with his family. For us, as Bruins, it’s about making sure we play our best and come back in form in September. I feel very confident in Tuukka and I know everyone else does as well. It should be OK.”

Thomas has expressed a desire to play for the U.S. Olympic team again in 2014 after backing up Ryan Miller in 2010 (to be eligible, he’d have to play the 2013-14 NHL season). If he made the team, he’d be competing for time with Miller as well as Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who took home the 2012 Conn Smythe. There’s also the possibility that the U.S. team — if the NHL indeed allows its players to go to Sochi in 2014 — could go with a younger American, like Detroit’s Jimmy Howard.

Before the lockout began, it seemed that Thomas missing a year while other goalies played would have hampered his Olympic ambitions. Now, though, Thomas would return much closer to being on equal footing with the rest of the league than if the lockout hadn’t happened.

Fans and commentators have speculated about whether or not Thomas expected the lockout when he announced his break. Some also wondered whether he was trying to diminish his potential trade value for the Bruins by taking the year off; the team had asked him to waive his no-trade clause in the summer of 2010 but couldn’t find the right trade partner, and Thomas responded with a stellar 2011 season.

Whether or not his decision to take a sabbatical at the team’s expense almost two years later has anything to do with those trade rumors is difficult to say. Aside from his Olympic aspirations, Thomas hasn’t expressed any clear-cut plans for the season after the lockout is settled (although he has continued to voice his political opinions, posting on Facebook in July that he supported Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy when Cathy came under fire for speaking out against gay marriage).

“What does this portend for the future?” Thomas wrote in the Facebook statement announcing his break. “We’ll see … God’s will be done.”

Read More: 2012 Stories of the Year, Tim Thomas,