It’s customary during this time of year to see NHL clubs sign some of their young prospects from the college ranks. Former University of Nebraska-Omaha forward Bill Thomas was just signed, but was undrafted and playing in only his sophomore season with the Mavericks.
Playing for less than a decade, the University of Nebraska-Omaha is a thriving program in college hockey and the CCHA. College hockey observers have started to realize that this club can play with the best the nation has to offer.
It was a collective effort, but Thomas and good friend and now former linemate Scott Parse (LA), were the key guys on coach Mike Kemp’s squad that have helped push UNO into the limelight.
But now, these days are different for the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native. He’s no longer a Maverick; he’s the newest member of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Immediately after UNO ended its 2005-06 season in a NCAA tournament loss to a hot Boston University squad, Thomas inked a contract that would begin his professional hockey career.
“I knew coming into the last weekend before we lost in the tournament that the opportunity for me to leave would be on the table,” the newest Coyote told Hockey’s Future. “I talked with my agent last Saturday. We went through things and figured out where the most opportunity would be. We had two offers and I felt that Phoenix’s fit me better. I felt they were definitely the team in which I had the most opportunity with, especially when they were expressing the interest in me coming to Phoenix and start practicing with the team right off the bat.”
Before the ink could dry on his contract, Thomas was headed to Phoenix and looking to get acquainted with his new team.
“I officially signed last Sunday with the Coyotes,” he said. “I talked with Wayne Gretzky and Mike Barnett and they had everything scheduled. I was on a plane at 1:30 Monday morning out of Omaha. I got down to Phoenix, I got situated with a hotel and I made it to pre-game skate the next morning. I met all the guys and I got to talk to some of them.”
But Thomas was in for a big surprise.
“I wasn’t expecting to play the second day I was there and then they popped me in there for the game against Nashville.” Thomas explained. “It was a pretty big shock for me, not getting to take warm-ups and then having them call me to step on the ice and play with the Coyotes.”
Making his official debut, Thomas saw almost 11 minutes of ice time, and said it was an experience of a lifetime, but a good chance to see and understand how the game is played at the highest level firsthand.
“Everyone plays a lot smarter and they think it out instead of wasting energy skating around looking to create havoc,” Thomas explained about what he learned in his first game. “They think about the situation they’re in and about making a smart play and limiting their turnovers, which is a big thing. I notice that when a team turns a puck over here, they are quick to capitalize on the chance with a goal or a scoring opportunity.”
Thrown into the mix in such a short matter of time, he’s tried to do keep simple.
“I’m just focused on making the least mistakes as possible,” he said. “I’ve been focused on not turning the puck over and getting the puck deep into our zone. I’m trying to make the simple plays, not the tough ones I would try in back in college that I was more comfortable to do in that style of game. I’ll just try to chip the puck deep, stick on my man and not get beat one-on-one, which is my biggest concern.”
From the outside looking in, Thomas admits that’s he’s still in awe to be playing in the NHL.
“I’m sitting on the bench and Paul Kariya pulls up in the zone and I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be out there playing against Kariya,’” he recalled. “Then, you look at the bench and the players on my team and there are players here that I can remember watching some of as far back as five years ago. These are guys that you were trying to emulate as a kid.
“Then you have Wayne Gretzky behind me and he’s my coach. I mean he’s one of the best players to ever play. From my standpoint, I still look at him like, ‘hey it’s Wayne Gretzky.’ I have only been with the team for four days and I don’t want to make a mistake in front of him. He is my coach and I’m going to listen to him.”
Sweet home Nebraska
Thomas has been playing hockey in the state of Nebraska for the past four years. After spending a year with the Cleveland Barons in the NAHL, the aspiring forward was picked up by the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, which is located in Kearney, Nebraska. He would go on to play two seasons with the Storm.
Although he led the squad in scoring with 50 points (29 goals, 21 assists), during the 2002-03 season, Thomas went virtually unnoticed in a deep 2001 NHL draft.
“Not getting drafted really didn’t bother me because I didn’t know that much about the draft or how it all worked,” Thomas said while looking back to the summer of 2001. “We just tried going through it but and I didn’t get drafted. I know I wasn’t that good at the time to be drafted. I just kept playing hard.”
He would return for the 2003-04 season and led the Storm in scoring for a second straight season. His 69 points (31 goals, 38 assists) also pegged him as the league’s third overall scoring leader. Also that year, he was named to the All-Star game and earned USHL Second Team honors.
“Obviously, I like to succeed and win like a lot of people do, so I just kept on working harder year after year,” he explained. “I didn’t feel slighted or anything (about not getting drafted), I just had to work harder to earn what I wanted and not to forget what it took to get me here in the first place.”
In his last season in the USHL, someone finally came calling.
“I got a scholarship offer to go to UNO,” Thomas recounted. “They were one of two teams in all of college hockey that offered me a scholarship that year.”
As a freshman with the Mavericks during the 2004-05 season, Thomas went on to earn CCHA Rookie of the Year honors, he made the CCHA All-Rookie Team and was finally named to the CCHA All-League Second Team.
This past year, Thomas played on a line with Parse and Bryan Marshall. Together, the trio guided the team to a second straight fourth place finish in the CCHA. While Parse led the team in overall scoring and chased a Hobey Baker award, Thomas scored the most goals. Altogether, the trio combined for 39 percent of the team’s offense and helped catapult the Mavericks to their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s seventh year in existence.
“We lost to Northern Michigan during the last CCHA series,” Thomas stated while looking back over the last week of the Mavericks 2005-06 season. “Everybody thought that was the end of the season. We had to wait another week to find out if we were getting in or not. It proved us very well, that a lot of things you do throughout the season can give you a second life and it did. With Denver and Colorado College losing, those were two big loses that helped us get in to the tournament. As a team, we were just ecstatic to make the tournament at the time.”
Getting the invitation to the tournament was great, but a rough road was ahead of them. In their first and only game, the Mavericks met up with a hot Boston University team, who went on to take UNO down 9-2.
“We wanted to go in and prove ourselves, but it didn’t work out that way,” Thomas explained. “We prepared for the game and all. We were right with Boston University, having scored the first goal and being tied after the first period. I don’t know if it was their experience that kicked in or what it was. They just took the game to us in a way that we weren’t used to and we got out of our systems.”
While the finish wasn’t obviously something that Thomas and the Mavericks were looking for, he still believes that future is bright future for UNO’s program.
“Our program is pretty young, considering the teams we play against,” he said. “You look at the Michigans, the Michigan States and the Lake Superior States and they have been there for a good long time. We’re making some big steps right now in a short amount of time. I think it is a good selling point. UNO is a program on the rise.”
On the run
If you put it all together, it is easy to see the amount of potential Thomas has. Over the last few years of advanced play, he has factored himself into each of his team’s systems, and has been a big of his team’s success. Not bad for a kid who came from a family that had no history in or with the sport of hockey.
As of Saturday night, Thomas picked up his first NHL point with an assist on a Geoff Sanderson goal at 2:30 of the second period in a win against the San Jose Sharks.
“Right now, I’m very excited to be here,” he said about playing immediately with the club. “I’m glad I’m getting the opportunity to learn for next three weeks to a month. I can use that to prepare over the summer and hopefully be prepared for next season.”
He knows it’s a huge change, one that he’s trying to adjust to on a day-to-day basis.
“I would say that this is a very good trial period to get my feet wet and understand things such as how things work on the road and how things work during home games. I want to get a good feel of the NHL mentality.”
Even during his down time he said it’s been just as busy as he tries to keep in friends and family.
“It’s great,” he said. “Friends I’ve had before UNO are calling me or sending me emails to say hello and congratulate me. It’s awesome. Today is one of those days where I’m trying to get back to a lot of my friends that called and tell them, ‘thanks for the phone call.’ It’s been kind of hard the last few days because I’ve been traveling.”
When everything slows down for the young winger, he’s confident everything will get back to some state of normalcy. But when it was asked if these are some good days to be Bill Thomas, he paused for a second, then let out a little chuckle and said, “Yeah!”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.