By Bob Crawford

Steve Thomas, who would go on to score 421 goals and 933 points in 1,235 NHL games over 20 seasons, was overlooked coming out of an outstanding Ontario Hockey League Junior career.  That was largely due to one factor, size, or more accurately, lack thereof.  Thomas, who was nicknamed “Stumpy” for his lack of height, checked in at 5-9 and 170 pounds, distinctly undersized for the NHL of the early ‘80’s, when he was graduating from Junior.  As it turned out, though, every NHL team who passed on chances to select him in several drafts, or sign him as an undrafted free agent, would go on to regret it, after Thomas quickly proved himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent and became one of the grittier goal-scorers of his era.

CT WhaleSo when another Thomas came along, Steve’s son Christian, the hockey world was not about to make the same mistake again, even though Christian inherited his dad’s smallish stature.

Christian followed Steve into the OHL, and in his draft year of 2010, coming off of a 41-goal, 66-point season with the Oshawa Generals, he only lasted into the second round, before the New York Rangers nabbed him with the 40th overall pick.

Christian Thomas, who joined the Whale for his first taste of pro hockey last week, after he and the Generals were eliminated from the OHL playoffs, believes that it is easier now for smaller players to succeed in the pro game than it was when his dad was trying to break in.

“There are a lot of smaller players now, hopefully that won’t hurt, the way I play,” he said Sunday, prior to suiting up for his second pro game, a 1-0 Whale win at Hershey.  “But big or small guy, you have to be better at other things, more aware on the ice and use other parts of your game better, shoot the puck and be quick.  And I find that the way I play is fine like that.”

Steve Thomas, who has moved into the player-development arena since retiring after the 2003-04 NHL season and now serves as the player development coordinator for the Tampa Bay Lightning, served as a valuable role model for his son.  Christian was going on 12 years old when Steve hung up the skates, so Christian got a good chance to study how dad got things done.

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”He was a really hard worker, he got in on the forecheck, he had a good shot,” Christian remembered of Steve.  “So hopefully I can play kind of like he did and get stuff going.

“He had a great career, never drafted, so he always gives me some tips, especially here in the ‘A’ (AHL).  He helps coach the Norfolk Admirals (the Lightning’s AHL affiliate), so he knows what it takes here, and he gives me some tips.”

That includes a joking reminder now and again of how the old fella had to battle his way up from being ignored by the NHL, while the youngster has the advantage of having been a high-round pick.

“He was never drafted, he made it on the Leafs there as a tryout, so he always lets me know how hard he had to work,” Christian said.  “And hopefully I can be half the player he was.”

Christian Thomas has already accomplished the feat of surpassing Steve’s OHL goal-scoring best, as Christian lit the lamp 54 times in 66 Generals games in 2010-11.  The most Steve ever scored as a Junior was 51.  Now Christian hopes to translate that production to a new level of competition.

“In Juniors I had good linemates to set me up,” he said, “but here, all the opportunities I get I’m just going to shoot the puck as hard as I can and as well as I can, and hopefully I can get some goals.

“I’m here just to play my game and play how I play in Juniors, and hopefully I can do that here and create some opportunities.”

That will be more of a challenge in the AHL than in the OHL, as Thomas noticed in his first Whale game, a 3-0 loss at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday.

“It was a lot quicker,” Thomas said.  “Guys were a lot bigger and stronger, but the first period was kind of feeling the play.  Second, third period, I thought it was great, I had a lot of fun out there.”

Whale head coach Ken Gernander feels that Thomas has fit in well in the Whale lineup.

“I thought the first night, in Wilkes-Barre, he showed a lot of hustle, a couple of good bursts of speed chasing loose pucks through the neutral zone,” Gernander said.  “He’s had some shots, but he’s going to have to find ways to get them on net, they’ve been fronted or guys get a piece of them, but in practice he can certainly shoot a puck.  So we’re looking forward to seeing him rip a couple on net.”

As far as finishing chances and burying the puck, which was Thomas’ bread and butter in the OHL, Gernander is keeping his expectations measured.

“It’s not like the start of the season, where you can spend a training camp getting him acclimated, maybe work him into a power play or what have you,” said Gernander.  “We’re challenging for playoff spots and now for playoff positioning, and he’s probably not going to jump right on to your top power play, which he would probably be used to in his Junior environment, being the go-to guy there.  Just from an opportunity standpoint, probably not what he was used to in Junior, and he’ll just have to find ways of getting it done five-on-five.  But if the opportunity presents itself, he’s someone of interest that could possibly get some special-units play.”

Also playing his first pro game that night in Wilkes-Barre was Thomas’ fellow Ranger draftee, centerman Shane McColgan, who signed an Amateur Tryout (ATO) agreement with the Whale the same day Thomas joined the roster.  Although McColgan is a Western Hockey Leaguer, so he and Thomas do not know each other well as players, Thomas says he feels some kinship with the California-born McColgan.

“We’re the same size,” Thomas said, “I met him at training camp, I think we play kind of the same game.  He’s a passer, he works hard, he’s quick too.  I think if we play our games here, we’ll do stuff well.”

Thomas spoke on Sunday after a fairly lengthy Whale pregame meeting before the game in Hershey.  When asked if the game plan imparted was more complex than he was used to in the Junior ranks, he responded that the concepts seemed universal.

“It’s about the same thing,” Thomas said.  “Every team’s got their strategy, every team’s got their systems.  I think the systems here are pretty similar to in Junior hockey, and the way he (Gernander) wants us to play is pretty similar as well.”

It’s already been a long season for the 19-year-old Thomas, but his main goal in his tour with the Whale is to extend it for as long as he can.

“Just playing as many games as possible,” Thomas said about his objective, “try to generate some offense and not make too many mistakes out there.”

Gernander’s playing career overlapped with Steve Thomas’, and although their paths did not cross often, Gernander sees a lot in Christian Thomas of what he remembers of the elder Thomas’s game.

“Neither one was really big,” Gernander said, “so you’re going to have to really fight hard and compete for loose pucks and for body positioning and things like that.  And I think he (Christian) does that pretty well, uses his quickness to get in underneath bigger guys, and his body to protect the puck and support the puck.  Hes still young too, and he’s going to mature and get stronger physically.  He might not get taller or bigger in stature, but I think he’ll mature physically, and become a little bit stronger as he matures.  He’s going to be a good, competitive, hard-working player.”

Kreider Joins Rangers

Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in the 2009 NHL Draft, who just finished helping to lead Boston College to the NCAA Championship, had his first practice with the Rangers Wednesday, thereby triggering the start of the entry-level NHL contract that he agreed upon with the parent club on Tuesday.  When asked by the New York media about his decision to sign now and not wait until the summer, Kreider said, “There were several different ways to look at it, but they (the Rangers) were pretty adamant about getting started and getting down here as soon as possible. I wanted to do that. I wanted to help any way I could.”

It will be interesting to see how much Kreider will be able to help the Rangers’ forward group, and how soon he might get in the lineup.  One thing is clear, Ranger head coach John Tortorella will not be feeding the fires of any speculation.  “We’re happy he’s here and he’s a Ranger, from there, we go day by day,” Tortorella told the New York reporters. “I’m not going to tell you our lineups. But this is a young man that we feel has a great future and it started with us today. So he’s signed, he’s with us and we move along about our business.”

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