PG North: Fox Chapel's Thomas eager to get started with Penguins

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Bill Thomas probably wasn't a lot different than most of his fellow Western Pennsylvanians in early June.

He was excited to have procured tickets to Game Six of the Stanley Cup final, hoping to watch the Penguins move to within a game of winning the Cup in person.

"I was cheering them on as a fan," said Thomas, a Fox Chapel native. "I wanted them to win."

But for everything he had in common with most of the 17,132 on hand that night at Mellon Arena, only a month-and-a-half later, he took a phone call none of those other fans did.

It was from Penguins general manager Ray Shero, and it was to welcome Thomas to the organization after he agreed to a contract with the team.

"It's incredible," Thomas said. "I was so excited to sign, and my family, they thought it was incredible.

"Watching games will be easier now, instead of having to stay up late. It's great to have the opportunity to play in the city where I grew up."

Thomas, 25, signed a one-year contract with the Penguins July 15 after spending the previous two-plus years with the Phoenix Coyotes organization.

Thomas is a Fox Chapel Area High School graduate who played for the Foxes' high school team and the Amateur Penguins as a youth.

He also played for the Cleveland Barons of the North American Hockey League later in his teens and experienced two seasons of junior hockey with the Tri-City Storm in Nebraska before spending two years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, an NCAA Division I hockey program.

He appeared in 40 games the past three seasons with the Coyotes, who are coached by hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and now has signed with the Penguins, who are owned by hockey legend Mario Lemieux.

"It's definitely pretty amazing to be coached by someone you grew up looking up to," Thomas said, "and now, growing up in Pittsburgh, everybody knows who Mario Lemiuex is and wants to be like him."

Not to mention that Thomas gets a chance to play with Penguins stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who arguably have the potential to develop into this generation's Lemieux and Gretzky.

"It's definitely a great team to come into with a lot of talent, some of the best players in the world on that team," Thomas said.

"Hopefully, I'll get a good opportunity to contribute and everything works out."

Of course, Thomas is not guaranteed a roster spot with the Penguins. He signed a two-way contract, meaning he can be sent to the team's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and his salary fluctuates depending on which team he is playing on. He must earn his way onto the big club.

To do that at training camp, which opens next month, he will have to show he is an all-around contributor at both ends of the ice.

Thomas has always been an offensive producer, having put up more than a point per game in college and with Tri-City, and scoring 24 goals with 28 assists in 75 games last season with San Antonio, the Coyotes' AHL affiliate.

But the NHL is an entirely different animal, and not just because it's more difficult to score. Coaches demand a commitment to a defensive philosophy, and to survive in the league, players must learn to accept a role.

Thomas, who was relatively productive early in his NHL career, having had nine goals and eight assists in his first 33 games before going scoreless in seven outings last season, is learning that lesson firsthand.

"I kind of became a goal-scoring type of player, but as you move onto the pro level, I've been just trying to get accustomed to playing both ends of the ice," Thomas said.

"You can be an offensive player, but talking to pro coaches and general managers, they want me to work on my defensive game more ... The last few years, I've really concentrated on being a total player in my end."

Thomas has trained the past three summers at Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona. He spent June with family in Fox Chapel, but left for the Phoenix area July 1, a date that just happened to coincide with the beginning of his free agency.

There, he has trained with a handful of NHL players, a group that included Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris, Penguins forward Jeff Taffe and Dan Cleary.

Cleary is a right wing for the Detroit Red Wings, the same Red Wings team that defeated Thomas' beloved Penguins in the Stanley Cup final. He's the same guy who scored a goal in Game One of that series and later hoisted the Stanley Cup as he skated on the ice at Mellon Arena June 4 as Thomas stood and watched.

"That was a little, well, interesting when he showed up [to train]," Thomas laughed. "But he's an awesome guy."


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