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The tale of two goaltenders

BOSTON -- Even before Tim Thomas became a full-time goaltender in the NHL for the Boston Bruins, he knew the storied history of Hall of Fame netminder Johnny Bower.

Thomas knew hockey was different when Bower played in the 1950s and 1960s compared to today's game. He knew the NHL was made up of the Original Six teams when Bower was scratching and clawing his way through the minors, waiting for his opportunity.

Thomas read and learned about Bower's brief stint with the New York Rangers in 1953-54, and how after years of toiling in the AHL, Bower finally became the starting goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1958-59 season. He was 34.

Thomas often thought of how his career path to the NHL was similar to Bower's and that if the former goalie could accomplish so much in his career, Thomas could, too.

"Definitely. He was an inspiration to me before I made it," Thomas said. "Looking at his story was one of the reasons I said, 'Hey, it's happened before.' I was aware of his story and he's been an inspiration."

Like Bower, Thomas spent the majority of the earlier part of his pro career in the AHL, and both played in Providence. Bower made his NHL debut with the Rangers at age 29. Thomas played his first NHL game with the Bruins at age 28. Bower won his first Vezina Trophy at age 36. Thomas was 34 when he won his.

There are differences between the two.

Bower won four Stanley Cup championships with the Maple Leafs, including three straight from 1961 to 1964. Bower, now 86, is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and finished his career with 250 wins and 37 shutouts in 552 games played.

Oh, by the way, Bower was 45 when he retired.

"He said he'd keep playing as long as they would give him a chair to sit down in when the puck is in the other end of the ice," Thomas said with a smile. "I don't know if I want to [play that long], to be honest."

When Bower heard that, he had some advice for Thomas.

"He's 36 and I played until I was 45, so tell him he's got 10 more years and that'll give him a lot of confidence," Bower said with a laugh during a phone conversation with ESPNBoston.com.

Thomas has been impressive, too.

The 36-year-old has recorded 159 wins with 26 shutouts in 315 games played, all with the Bruins. He won the Vezina in 2008-09 and is on track to win his second this season.

"He's my favorite. We stick together pretty good," Bower said of Thomas. "I think the world of him. He's a great hockey player, a great goalkeeper. I watch quite a few games of his and he does a lot of things I used to do.

"The one thing about him I liked is he went down when he had to, and stood up when he had to. His record speaks for itself and that's why [the Bruins] are so successful and playing so well. He's the backbone of the team."

During 2005-06, the Bruins asked Thomas to live somewhere between Boston and Providence because he would likely be on the Route 95 shuttle between the NHL and AHL that season. He rented a place in North Attleboro, Mass., and was having lunch at a local Wendy's one day when he first learned Bower had played in Providence.

There were old pictures of the Providence Reds on the wall at the restaurant, and there it was, in black and white, a picture of Johnny Bower in a Reds uniform.

Thomas met Bower for the first time during the 2009 NHL All-Star game in Montreal and they immediately hit it off. The two talked about playing in Providence and Bower explained what it was like to play in the AHL back then.

"They weren't making a lot of money. 'As long as we had enough money for beer,' is what he was telling me," Thomas said. "It was great to meet him."

Bower concurred.

"I know I wished him luck, I know that," he said. "It was struggle for me [to get to the NHL], like it was for him."

Thomas is a strong candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender, and should also be considered for the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP this season. Without his contributions, there's no way the Bruins are the top team in the Northeast Division. Bower believes Thomas deserves those accolades.

"I don't see why not," Bower said. "He's played so well, but he actually wants to see his team win the Stanley Cup, like I did. But it's well-deserving and he's done very, very well. He's kept his team together and he played good."

Even though both goaltenders played in completely different eras, the position has always been a special one in hockey and the men between the pipes are no doubt a different breed. They also know they need help to be successful.

"I've always maintained that you're only as good as what you have in front of you, and believe me, I had a good solid defense," Bower said.

Maple Leafs coach George "Punch" Imlach gave Bower some advice when the netminder began his legendary stint in Toronto in the late '50s.

"Punch said, 'I'll get you a good, strong defense and you better do the rest.' So that was a big help, and I think in Boston, Timmy has a good defense in front of him," Bower said. "Communication is a big factor and I worked very close with my defense. Hey, we've got the best seat in the house and we know everything that's going on. I'm sure Timmy works well with his defense, otherwise they wouldn't be where they are now."

Bower will be watching Thursday's game when his Maple Leafs play the Bruins at TD Garden.

"Well, naturally, I'll be a Maple Leaf all my life," Bower said. "I hope Timmy plays a good game, if he plays. I'm sure he'll play because it's an important game. I hope Toronto wins, there's no doubt about that, but I don't wish Boston any bad luck, either."

Maple Leaf fans have been suffering a Stanley Cup drought longer than the Bruins. In fact, Bower played on that last Cup team in Toronto during the 1966-67 season. Boston has been waiting since 1972.

"They want a Stanley Cup, too, in Boston; they want one as bad as Toronto," Bower said. "[Boston] fans are great. If you made a good save, they would know what a save was and they would give you a good ovation for it. Timmy's got a bushel of them and he deserves every one of them.

"He deserves everything he can get, and if he can win a few awards, why not? He deserves them, in my opinion. Good luck to him, too. Our goaltender's union is small, but we're still cheering for our goalkeepers. I wish him the best. I don't wish anybody any bad luck."

Now it's Bower who knows the story of Tim Thomas.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.