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Steve Thomas: He should always have stayed a Maple Leaf, like many Leafs before him

You know how there are just certain guys who belong in a particular uniform?  Jean Beliveau or “Rocket” Richard in anything other than the “bleu, blanc et rouge” of the Montreal Canadiens would have been awful.  Beliveau (pictured at right on a classic old hockey card) played his entire career with the Habs and captained the team throughout most of the 1960s until his retirement after the 1970-'71 season.  The legendary "Rocket" played 18 years in Montreal and was the geatest goal-scorer of his era.  He was the epitome of "the Flying Frenchman".  (Thankfully, free agency and disproportionally huge athlete salaries didn’t exist in those golden years—golden for the fans, at least.)

Nowadays, wouldn’t a Peyton Manning look terrible in, say, a Detroit Lions uniform?  He’s a Colt, and should always be.

For me, as a lifelong Maple Leaf fan, it is still sad that individuals such as Dave Keon, Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler, not to mention Borje Salming and more recently, Mats Sundin (though Mats started elsewhere) and many others, finished their careers elsewhere.

We all understand that, in the same breath, sports has evolved.  Free agency has indeed shifted the landscape, though in truth even my revered 'olden days' were rocked by trades that sent loyal players off to the enemy at the drop of a hat.  (Who would have thought goalie Jacques Plante would ever be traded—after about half a dozen Vezina trophies and as many Stanley Cups during his time with Montreal in the 1950s and early 1960s?  Yet he was…and the same thing happened with Doug Harvey, who was also unceremoniously dispatched by Montreal to the lowly Rangers.)
Closer to home, there are just some guys who should never have left—or been made to leave—the blue and white., above and beyond the guys I mentioned above.  They were Maple Leafs and should always has stayed that way.

In those “yesteryear” times, that comment, in my mind, would apply to Bobby Baun, Dickie Duff, Bobby Pulford.  Each of those guys were Maple Leaf heroes.  At least Baun finished his career back in Toronto, after stops in Oakland and Detroit.  Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark managed to get back home before injuries forced them out of the game, too.  But guys like Baun, Duff and Pulford (see the great old late '50s photo of Duff and Pulford at right) were great Maple Leafs, and it's a shame they had to play elsewhere.

Going back a few years (but not as far back as Duff and Pulford) there is  one Leaf "guy" who fits the above description for me:  winger Steve Thomas.

Thomas joined the Leafs in the mid-1980s.  I don’t know that he was drafted, at least I don’t recall that he was so I assume he was one of those many undrafted free agents who go on to make a nice career for themselves. 

Right off the bat I liked what I saw in Thomas.  He wasn’t a big guy, but seemed well built, kind of one of those low-to-the-ground skaters who are hard to knock off the puck.  He had a strong lower body and was also strong on his skates.

He had a distinctive skating style.  He wasn’t the fastest guy, or the toughest, yet he got where he needed to go and didn’t back down in the dirty places.  He was a breath of fresh air when the Leafs were coming off some pretty awful seasons in the early 1980s.

The only frustrating thing about Thomas that I personally felt at the time was that he struggled in the playoffs at the end of the 1986-'87 season.  He had put together a magnificent offensive regular-season, producing more than 30 goals, but faded somewhat in the playoffs.

That said, I didn’t think the answer was trading him.  Evidently the Leaf brass (I’m assuming it was still Gerry McNamara who was the GM, but I’m not one hundred per cent certain.  As an aside, I’m not among those who throw all the blame at McNamara for the fitful ‘80s, though he was part of the equation.  He made some great drafts with his scouting staff but the era was a downer, overall, yes…) shared my post-season frustration and Thomas was moved that summer.

It was a pretty big deal at the time.  Very big, in fact. Former Leaf captain (and three-time 50-goal scorer, albeit in an era where that was not quite the achievement it was many years before and is now) Rick Vaive also went to Chicago with Steve and rugged defenseman Bob McGill.

Back came a past-his-best-years (though his best years had been really good) Al Secord and an emerging Eddie Olczyk.  I hated the deal then and still don’t like it, looking back now.

Moving Vaive was OK (though I loved what Rick brought to teams in his later years, when he was more than just a goal-scorer…) but giving up on Thomas was tough.  I know you almost always have to give up something to get something, but Thomas was maybe 24 at the time and to me was a real “Maple Leaf”.

Olczyk was a nice player, but Thomas, in my eyes, had the heart of an old-time Maple Leaf player and the makings of an excellent two-way winger—which proved to be the case throughout a long and stellar career.

Steve went on to have some high-end years with the Hawks and Islanders, scoring 40+ goals a couple of times, before re-joining the Leafs in the early Pat Quinn years.  (Note to myself: his playoff production was just fine his last time around here…).

Yet he went to Chicago again, this time as a free agent, in the summer of 2001.  It was another missed chance  (for both parties) to finish his fine career with the Leafs.

Interestingly, a trade to the Ducks gave him renewed life, and one last shot at a Cup.  Anaheim almost pulled that off as a major undergog in 2003 behind a young and magnificent J.S. Giguere.  Steve was a significant contributor for the then “Mighty” Ducks, as they were called.

He had one last chance at a ring with the Red Wings in 2004 but it was one of those occasional years when the Detroit went out early in the playoffs.

I was thinking and hoping Thomas may come back for a swan song with the Leafs and I believe he was hoping for that, too, but he never received (at least to my knowledge) a firm contract offer from the club after the 2003-’04 season, when he was 40 years of age.

I felt he could still play, but in truth, though a very smart and experienced player, he was probably a step or two slower than what the Leafs felt they needed at the time after the lockout in 2004-‘05.  Steve would have been what, 42 by then?  So maybe it wouldn’t have worked, though I would dearly have loved to see it.

Steve was nicknamed “Stumpy”, I’m assuming because of his short but stocky build.  His son was drafted in the last year if I’m not mistaken, so there may be another Thomas in the NHL before long.

I just wished his Dad had been able to finish his distinguished career right where it started:  in the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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