Fox Chapel High School graduate Bill Thomas made his NHL debut Tuesday night for the Phoenix Coyotes. Thomas took 14 shifts in a 5-3 win against Nashville.
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Five days was all it took for Bill Thomas to go from playing as a sophomore forward in college to making his NHL debut.
Thomas, a Fox Chapel High School graduate, helped to lead Nebraska-Omaha to the NCAA tournament for the first time. After a first-round loss to Boston University March 24, Thomas spent last weekend fielding pitches from several teams, then signed with the Coyotes and flew to Phoenix Monday.
When center Dave Scatchard couldn't play Tuesday night against Nashville because of illness, Thomas was a last-minute addition to the lineup. So last minute that, thinking he would just be watching, he went to buy a suit and by the time he got to Glendale Arena, he barely had time to throw on his equipment and take the ice before the national anthem.
He had no points but played 10 minutes, 51 seconds, including a shift on the power play, and was a minus-1 in the Coyotes' 5-3 victory.
"It was pretty crazy," Thomas, 22, said Friday from San Jose, where he hoped to play last night.
Thomas was an unrestricted free agent when he decided to give up his final two years of college eligibility. The Penguins were one of several teams that showed interest, but he chose Phoenix in part because it wanted him on the NHL roster right away and in part because of coach and all-time NHL great Wayne Gretzky -- who liked one specific thing about Thomas.
"He's a goal-scorer," Gretzky told the Arizona Republic.
In two seasons playing junior in the United States Hockey League with the Tri-City Storm in Nebraska, Thomas became that team's career leader in points (120), goals (60), assists (60) and game-winning goals (13) and helped it win the 2003-04 Anderson Cup championship.
He moved on to Omaha-Nebraska, where, in 41 games this season, his 27 goals were tied for fifth in the NCAA and his 51 points led the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and were 15th in the NCAA.
Thomas wasn't identified as much of a prospect in his early teens, he said, because he was only around 5 feet 2 when he started high school. His final two years at Fox Chapel, he commuted to Cleveland to play midget hockey.
"I was a late bloomer," said Thomas, who now is 6-1, 185 pounds.
Tight races abound
Coming back after a work stoppage wiped out the 2004-05 season, the NHL's collective-bargaining agreement and rules adjustments were aimed in part at making its teams more competitive.
It seems as if it worked.
With less than three weeks left in the regular season, things were so tight heading into the weekend that only three teams -- Detroit, Ottawa and Carolina -- had clinched a playoff spot. None had clinched a division or conference title or a playoff seeding.
The race for the Presidents Trophy, which goes to the team with the most points, is a four-way battle among Detroit, Ottawa, Dallas and Carolina.
The Northwest's race is the closest in league history, with the top four teams within two points entering the weekend.
It was just as close among individual players through Friday.
The New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr (114 points) and San Jose's Joe Thornton (106) are battling for the Art Ross Trophy (scoring title).
The top six goal-getters -- Jagr (52 goals), Washington's Alex Ovechkin (48), Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk (45), San Jose's Jonathan Cheechoo (45), Ottawa's Dany Heatley (43) and Carolina's Eric Staal (42) -- were separated by 10. If four reach 50, it will be the most since 1997-98.
Dealing with 50 goals
When he was 13 or 14, Alex Ovechkin, said, he reached 50 goals in a season for the only time in his life. It makes that plateau all the more impressive for his rookie NHL season with Washington.
"I think about it, but, when you go on the ice, you must try not to think about it," he said as he entered the weekend with 48 goals.
Only three others -- Teemu Selanne (76 with Winnipeg, 1992-93), Mike Bossy (53 with the New York Islanders, 1977-78), and Joe Nieuwendyk (51 with Calgary, in 1987-88) have reached 50 in their first NHL season.
Ovechkin also had 94 points going into the weekend. He is the favorite for the Calder Trophy that goes to the NHL rookie of the year with the only other real contenders being Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf.
Phoenix might add more free agents after signing Bill Thomas last week.
"There's a couple of other guys out there we're talking to," Gretzky told the Arizona Republic. "We like some kids that are unrestricted in college right now ... that had good years coming out of college hockey. It's a fine line. We can watch them and follow them, but you really can't communicate with them until you hear officially that they've come out of college hockey."
Any signees can feel pretty sure that Gretzky will be back as coach.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721.