- Scott Burnside, NHL
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TORONTO -- By rights he should have been in the comfortable seats at the Air Canada Center, waving politely when his familiar features are flashed on the video scoreboard over center ice.
In fact that's pretty much where everyone except Steve Thomas figured he'd be when the season began and the market for 40-year-old players nicknamed Stumpy appeared to have completely dried up.
But there he was in his hometown -- the city where he played 377 NHL games, not to mention 132 major junior games, the city where he fully expected to retire -- sitting on the opposing bench for the first time Saturday night with the rest of his new Detroit Red Wings mates, having his hat knocked off after a first-period, open-ice check by good buddy Gary Roberts.
A shift later there was Thomas, nose to nose against the glass with another good friend, Toronto captain Mats Sundin.
But even a little jostling can't wipe away the big grin that seems perpetually pasted on Thomas's face.
It's the grin of a man who has happily found a way to cheat time once more. It's a grin that is matched only by the one on Detroit general manager Ken Holland's face at having found yet another ageless wonder to keep Stanley Cup dreams alive in Hockeytown.
"You hear people say that you can't play any more. ... It just fuels me. I'll know when I'm not able to play anymore," Thomas said before his first game as a Red Wing in Toronto. "Although people can tell me, and general managers and that can tell me that I'm not good enough to play in the league anymore as competitive as I should be. I beg to differ with that. I feel as good now as I have in a long time."
Twice, once on the power play, Thomas came within a hair of setting up the first goal of the game. Then, with 19.2 seconds left in the opening frame, Thomas starts the play that leads to Brett Hull's 731st career goal. The assist is Thomas's 10th point in 13 games with the Red Wings. Asked if he's been rejuvenated playing on a line with Hall of Fame-bound Hull and the enormously gifted Pavel Datsyuk, Thomas is, as always, pragmatic.
"Just the fact that I've got an opportunity to play this year has rejuvenated me. It was pretty difficult while I was sitting out waiting for a team to call me," he said. "The fact that I am playing with Datsyuk and Hull is beyond my wildest dreams. It's an opportunity of a lifetime."
Thomas's importance to a Red Wings team that boasts perhaps half a dozen players bound for the hall should not be overstated. But neither should anyone understate how important his immediate impact has been to a Red Wings team that was struggling to find a measure of consistency while dealing with a spate of injuries, not to mention with a whopper of a goaltender conundrum.
In spite of their 5-2 setback Saturday in Toronto, the Wings are now 8-3-2 since Thomas's arrival.
"I got a goal in my first game," recalled Thomas. "More than anything I was trying to get out there and get a niche for myself in the club. And I got my first goal playing with a couple of young kids that were called up from Grand Rapids.
"We've had a lot of injuries here so there was opportunity. I got a chance to play on the power play and it went well with that and it's just snowballed from there. I think it all stemmed from the first game. You go out there and you play hard and you let the chips fall where they may. You find a role through that kind of progression."
At about the same time Thomas was scoring a goal and adding an assist in a crucial come-from-behind tie with division rival St. Louis last Thursday, not to
mention duking it out with 23-year-old Blues pest Mike Danton, Anaheim Mighty Ducks general manager Bryan Murray and coach Mike Babcock were lamenting their early-season woes.
The two decided they needed a character guy, a veteran forward who could still deliver the goods that could help the team's younger players and wasn't afraid to speak up in the dressing room.
"I said to (coach) Mike Babcock a couple of days ago, 'Isn't that Steve Thomas, or someone like him,'" Murray told ESPN.com this week.
The Ducks were instrumental in reviving Thomas's career last March when it looked to all the world that Thomas's tank was finally dry. And given his four-goal output in 69 games with the moribund Chicago Blackhawks, it looked like such an end was coming none too soon for the proud Thomas, a man who once scored 42 with the Islanders and had 10 times reached the 20-goal plateau. Murray recalls Thomas's first game, against the Blackhawks, hours after the Ducks had acquired him at the trade deadline.
Thomas switched dressing rooms and scored twice. The impact was significant beyond the statistics, said Murray. Immediately, players in the dressing room believed Thomas was indeed a key acquisition, reinforcing their belief in management. Thomas scored 10 times in 12 regular season games with the Ducks and then added eight points during Anaheim's improbable run to their first-ever Stanley Cup final.
But his presence was felt more deeply than even those impressive stats. Playing on a line with youngsters Samuel Pahlsson and Stanislav Chistov, Thomas helped coax solid play out of the gifted Chistov.
"He really helped Cheezy to really understand how hard you have to work every night to be a good player," Murray said.
It was a role Thomas embraced.
"How competitive I was at that point in the season, I didn't want to see us fail. And I just tried to push those guys as much as I could," Thomas said. "In the right way. I didn't demean them in any means. I just made sure we were upbeat and positive all the time and I challenged them and they challenged me at the same time. It was pretty good fit the three of us."
Sandwiched between a miserable 7-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings and a 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Thrashers, Babcock becomes a bit testy discussing Thomas.
"I was proud to have been his coach. He made you happy to be around him," but he doesn't play here anymore, Babcock said.
But it's also clear Thomas's absence has been felt.
Chistov, who showed up for training camp out of shape, hasn't scored a goal this season, and Babcock admits they are searching for an identity.
Thomas wanted to stay in the East to remain closer to his family, which had returned to Toronto after the disastrous turn in Chicago. However, by the time Thomas made it known to Murray he would have returned to Anaheim, the Ducks had no more money to spend and Thomas was forced to bide his time until Holland called.
"I think in the back of my mind I've always reassured myself that I can still play," Thomas said." I think the most important thing that I did was maintain my training in the offseason so that I was ready."
As he stood knee-deep in reporters, Thomas's new teammate Chris Chelios mussed up his hair from behind.
"Ripped," Chelios joked, one 40-something about another, "this guy is ripped."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.