WASHINGTON — Alternately emotional, relaxed, and at times witty, former Bruins goalie Tim Thomas spoke at length here on Thursday, detailing for the first time his struggle with psychological and neurological health issues dating to his final NHL season of 2013-14.
Now more than eight years removed from his heroic Stanley Cup-winning performance with the Bruins in 2011, Thomas was open and earnest about the effects of what he described as a traumatic brain injury he sustained when hit by a shot to his head in pregame warm-ups in December 2013, during his short tenure with the Florida Panthers.
From that point on, said Thomas, his journey to recovering his mental and physiological health has been at times a confusing and frustrating odyssey, one in which he said led him at times to ponder taking his own life.
“I would say I gave up at least 100 times . . . or tried to,” said Thomas, speaking with reporters prior to his induction into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. “I never came that near to taking my own life. There was always a barrier there for me. I only really thought about it a couple times — then got scared and pulled myself back because I had enough self-control . . . everyone’s different, you know? . . . but yeah, it was a frustrating few years.”
Thomas, 45, has lived in Colorado, Idaho, Florida, and most recently Arizona since retiring in the spring of 2014, explaining the moves were made, in part, to aid in his healing and also accommodate the wishes of his family.
“I’ve got a little gypsy in me, or something,” said Thomas, breaking into a broad smile.
Thomas explained that his mental state had been such in recent years that he has not remained in touch with his former Boston teammates. He was clearly delighted to meet a number of them here on Wednesday night when attending the Bruins-Capitals game at Capital One Arena.
Prior to the game, in which Thomas was introduced to the crowd as a USA Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, Thomas exchanged brief words and handshakes with Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand — all members of the 2011 Cup-winning team. He saw a few of them again postgame, prior to the Bruins flying to Tampa.
“I couldn’t keep up with watching the game for at least a few years after I stopped playing,” he said. “So, what’s the use of watching?”
Asked to explain further, Thomas added, “I couldn’t follow the game anymore . . . my brain wasn’t functioning well enough to be able to keep up with the game — so I sat out in the woods for a few years. I didn’t watch much hockey. There’s not much TV out there.”
It was the shot to his head in December 2013, off the stick of one of his Panthers teammates, said Thomas, that caused a “concussion that changed my life.”
“I lost my ability, essentially . . . I woke up the next morning after it and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat, where I wanted to go . . . I couldn’t follow a schedule,” said Thomas, describing his addled state. “I survived following the team schedule the rest of the year, made it through that season. Then a year after I stopped playing I got what is called a CereScan, a scan to measure the blood flow of your brain, very accurately, using radioactive isotopes . . . and two-thirds of my brain was getting less than 5 percent blood flow, and the other third was averaging about 50 percent. So, if you can put those numbers in and really think through what that means to where I was, that’s where I was.”
Along with Chara, Bergeron, and Marchand, Thomas also met with Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, and the Bruins’ training staff.
“I had a blast seeing those guys,” Thomas said. “I was going to say I enjoyed myself way more than I thought I would, but I knew I’d enjoy myself. I just didn’t know how much it would make me feel good to be around those guys again, even for a short period.”
Some seven minutes into a mid-afternoon media scrum at a downtown hotel here, Thomas choked up and began to cry when noting how his mental struggles robbed him of his communicative skills, specifically impairing interaction with family members.
“When you are there, but not there . . . and you can’t think, but you are watching everything, and seeing your family suffer because you are suffering . . . and you can’t do anything about it and you can’t even communicate . . . ,” he said, “I couldn’t communicate with anybody for a few years. I didn’t call my dad. I didn’t talk to anybody.”
When Thomas was a teenager, his mother and father sold their wedding bands in order to acquire the funds for him to go to hockey camp. Thomas’s father is now fighting late-stage cancer.
“So, there was a time period, yeah, I hated the game, so to speak,” he said. “I didn’t sit there [and say], ‘I hate it.’ My rebound effect was like, ‘This [mental state] wasn’t worth it.’ That’s where I was then. Where I am today is passed that, and I ended up learning so many lessons out of the experience, it brought me tighter with my family . . . it taught me a value for life.”
After a pause, with tears flowing, Thomas laughed and added, “And a value for my brain . . . that I never had before. And I have an appreciation for everything that I never had before. So, I don’t regret anything.”
His induction into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame, based in Eveleth, Minn., said Thomas, made him feel welcomed back into “the arms of the hockey family.”
“It’s been great,” he added, again getting choked up. “It’s reminded me of all the great people that I crossed path with all throughout my career. It’s been very impactful.”
When asked how hard it was to talk about these issues, Thomas said, “I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to tell the world this stuff. Not till I felt ready, and I didn’t feel ready. But here I am.”
Thomas credited his wife, brother, mother, and children for helping him get through the past few years, even when he couldn’t summon the strength or think clearly enough to communicate with them.
“They didn’t know what was going on with me, either,” said Thomas. “I didn’t know what was going on — I mean, even after I got the scan, you’re in a place where you can’t process that. When the doctor was giving us the results, like, my wife and oldest daughter just started bawling, and it’s not really touching me. I’m like trying to process it, and at the time I just couldn’t believe it . . . because I couldn’t function well enough to understand it, what was going on, and it still took a while.”
Later in the day, Thomas attended the USA Hockey Hall of Fame’s traditional dinner inside a large ballroom. Tie a bit askew, he looked relaxed and happy. From a distance, though his hair a bit thinner, he looked like the same guy who pocketed the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) and the Vezina Trophy (top goaltender) all within days of each other in the spring of 2011.
He said he remembers those days fondly, though he acknowledged his recent health issues forced him to work to recapture some memories that faded. Kiddingly, an acquaintance then asked Thomas if he remembered winning “three Cups in Boston.”
“Yeah,” he said after a hearty laugh, “the two from my dreams . . . and the one in reality.”