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Bob Ryan

Tim Thomas had improbable route to Cup stardom

At 37, it took goalie a long time to reach the top

Tim Thomas was named playoffs MVP after leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Tim Thomas was named playoffs MVP after leading the Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — He was never the Golden Boy.

You kidding? He didn’t start a game in the NHL until he was 28 and he didn’t become anyone’s regular goalie until he was 31. Until very recently, he would have been recognized on the street in Finland more readily than in downtown Boston.

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Go back further. His parents hocked their wedding rings at one point to raise money in support of young Timmy’s career.

“Doesn’t mean anything to me,’’ said his mother, Kathy Thomas, who was on hand for this happy occasion. “You do what you can for your son.’’

The Thomases even moved from Flint, Mich., to Detroit to aid his quest, with Tim selling apples door-to-door to make some money.

So now here’s the question: Will we spawn a new worldwide generation of flopping, diving, sprawling, swatting, generally pro-active goaltenders now that 37-year-old Tim Thomas has carried the Boston Bruins to a Stanley Cup championship?

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps Tim Thomas will remain sui generis. That would probably be a better scenario. After what he’s done all season, and especially in the past two months, Conn Smythe Trophy winner Tim Thomas deserves to be placed in a separate category.

“This is literally a dream come true, just like it is for everyone on this team,’’ he said. “At 37, this might be my only shot to win it.’’

The Vancouver Canucks have seen enough of him, that’s for sure. With last night’s 4-0 victory, Thomas wound up surrendering eight goals in seven games to the most potent offensive team in the league. This is a team that had three goals during one prolonged power play against San Jose.

Of course, he had help. The Bruins’ team defense during this series was beyond superb. But the anchor was No. 30. No one will deny that.

No, the man of most every match during the Bruins’ postseason was Tim Thomas, who gave the coach and his teammates what everyone wants in this game: peace of mind.

“He is so deserving of everything they’re giving him,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “Every night, all season long, he always gave us a chance.’’

Has any Stanley Cup-winning goaltender ever had a weirder path to a moment like this? There were the post-collegiate years (and plenty of them) wandering through the North American minor leagues, not to mention the four separate stops in Finland and some time in Sweden before he finally plopped himself between the pipes in an NHL game.

He then plays well enough to win a Vezina Trophy and sign a $30 million contract, which becomes something of an issue when subpar performance triggered by a hip injury relegates him to cheerleading status in the 2010 playoffs. He watched young Tuukka Rask play all 13 games while constantly reading and hearing that, as a backup goalie, he was undoubtedly the most overpaid player in the league.

Offseason hip surgery took care of the injury issue, and when the 2010-11 season arrived, Tim Thomas was ready to do his job. He was good enough during the regular season to merit nomination as a Vezina Trophy candidate again. Who could have imagined his stellar regular-season play was a mere appetizer before the main course that was the Stanley Cup playoffs?

The stats for the 25 games it took the Bruins to win the Cup — three sevens and a sweep, which is pretty interesting in itself — include 17 games with 30 or more saves, three with 40-plus, and a mind-boggling 52-save effort in a 3-2 overtime win in Game 2 of the Philadelphia sweep.

But it was not just sheer accumulation of saves that mattered. There are saves and there are SAVES! And Tim Thomas had plenty of SAVES!

There are many to discuss, of course, but the one that will probably lead all the Tim Thomas highlight packages was the astonishing stick save he made on Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie, a save so inexplicably athletic and spectacular it wasn’t until we all saw the replay that we knew the puck hadn’t simply hit the post.

There was endless discussion about his methodology, and it must be said that on occasion his abnormal aggressiveness creates tantalizingly open nets. Someone came up with the term “Battlefly’’ to describe his crowd-pleasing, unorthodox, no-style style.

All of which called to mind the many times Harry Sinden used to say that he didn’t give a hoot about how his goalies stopped the puck, as long as they stopped the puck. Harry wasn’t into style points.

Still isn’t.

“I’ve loved him since we got him,’’ beamed Sinden.

(What? You didn’t think Harry was going to miss this?)

“This was the culmination for him. I don’t care what people think about his style. His style is right; theirs is wrong.’’

What constituted a clunker game for Thomas in these playoffs might have merited a raise for someone else.

“I’ve got to tell you,’’ said Bruins president Cam Neely, who has seen a goalie or two in his time. “He’s got to be up there with the best I’ve ever seen. He elevated his game, especially in the Stanley Cup. He was so calm and composed. He took it to another level, and it was really fun to watch him play.’’

In the Now It Can Be Told Department, Thomas confessed he might not always have been as calm as he seemed.

“I won’t lie,’’ he said. “Yesterday and today, I faked it as well as I could, and I faked it all the way to the Stanley Cup.’’

Wait till the Canucks hear that.

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