Switching equipment is nothing new for NHL goaltenders, especially Tim Thomas.
Still, making changes to the puck-stopping set up that helped set an NHL record for save percentage while winning the Vezina Trophy, and then backstop Boston to the Stanley Cup while adding the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, is bound to raise a few eyebrows. And there are sure to be even more questions when the move is to a small independent company, which is exactly what Thomas did when he debuted the new gear as training camp opened on Saturday.
Thomas, who has worn every equipment designer under the sun during his career, opened the 2011-12 campaign in a pair of white mystery pads and catching glove devoid of any branding:
Immediate speculation centered around a switch to Warrior, a hot industry rumour after the company hired long-time independent Pete Smith to rebuild its goaltending line – Thomas was one of the only goalies to wear Smith in the NHL years ago – but that was quickly shot down by Warrior. Some suggested the new pad was simply a new take on the Vaughns he wore last year – the new V5 model is due out soon, could this be it? – minus the knee rolls and with a solid outer roll instead of the double break from last year’s pads, especially given how similar the inner edge and knee stack area appear in the photo below to the Vaughn’s Thomas used last season.
Of course, given how easily designers mimic each other, and how often NHL pads are totally customized and different from what consumers get off the rack from the same manufacturer, anything is possible. And given his recent success, it was not out of the question for an established manufacturer to build a new line around the Bruins’ star, just as Sherwood did with Martin Brodeur.
What seemed less likely was Thomas wearing a small, independent brand, one that simply hadn’t bucked up the huge NHL licensing fee required to have their name displayed on the equipment. According to an NHL source late Saturday, though, that is exactly what Thomas is doing, and InGoal tracked down the builder just before midnight.
The new catching glove and pads are built by Chris Piku, owner, head instructor and equipment designer at the World Pro Goaltending School in Michigan, which just happen to list Bruins’ goalie coach Bob Essensa among its regular instructors.
Piku confirmed he is making the gear for Thomas, but told Bruins fans they shouldn’t worry it might affect his play. That’s because Piku also claims he made the same modifications to the pads Thomas wore during his record-setting last season.
“Last year’s pad is the same one he’s wearing now,” Piku said, adding he bought Vaughn covers from a sporting good store. “Tim’s stuff was all custom made. We elected to put Vaughn covers on it because I wasn’t ready to start dealing with NHL and publisizing it.”
A representative at Vaughn Custom Sports disputed those claims late Sunday night, saying last year’s pads were made by Vaughn, and that even if more modifications were made after they left the factory, they aren’t anything that Vaughn hasn’t done in the past.
“There’s not a mod out there we haven’t done before,” he said, adding Vaughn doesn’t sell covers separately.
Whatever the case last season, Piku, who also said he made modifications to pads worn by Ray Emery during his inspiring comeback with the Anaheim Ducks last season after a career-threatening hip injury, said four NHL goalies are set to wear his equipment this year.
The connections to Emery, now in Chicago on a tryout, are obvious. Piku has worked with Emery’s personal goalie guru Eli Wilson for years, and sure enough Emery showed up at Sunday morning’s skate (picture below) wearing unbranded white pads. Piku also claimed that Phoenix goalie Jason LaBarbera, who works with World Pro in Calgary, and Ottawa’s Alex Auld are wearing the pads.
Piku figures he’ll get more notoriety by not branding his pads in the NHL – and last time InGoal checked the cost was $85,000 per piece to show your logo – and insists he has no desire to compete with the major equipment manufacturers.
“This is a very custom pad that we don’t necessarily even sell to everybody,” said Piku, who sees himself making 250 sets a year. “It’s exclusive gear for goalies we believe are worthy of it and we want to have wearing our gear.”
Piku would only talk about the pads and glove, but it was clear to any goalie inside the Bruins locker room there was custom work done on lots of the gear Thomas was wearing, from the kneepads to the pants. Even the skates pictured below are customized, said Piku.
Thomas has a long history of switching equipment. After wearing Bauer in 2009-10, he started last year’s training camp wearing Reebok’s Larceny line head to toe before switching to Vaughn everywhere but the blocker. That same Larceny blocker was back with the new set of pads this year, which isn’t a surprise given how much he told InGoal Magazine he liked it during an Ask-a-Pro segment last season:
“I just decided to basically wear the gear I felt more comfortable with, it doesn’t matter about the brand,” Thomas said. “Different blockers, the board is placed differently on the hand and I find the Reebok I am using is a pretty good compromise: It’s long enough (below the fingers) to get to that one that is just over the pad – it hangs down on the hand enough to get than one, but it’s also high enough up on the hand to help me get the high blocker ones. I like the positioning on the hand, and also it’s got good inner hand protection. Over the years I’ve had blockers that if you get that one shot that rides up your stick, it’s a stinger and teaches you bad habits.”
Here are more photos of the unique gear Thomas wore on Saturday, courtesy of InGoal shooter Scott Slingsby: