07/31/2013 9:26 AM
HAMILTON, ONTARIO - As the son of a former National Hockey League star, Christian Thomas has some lofty comparisons to live up to.
His father is Steve Thomas. Yes, the one they called “Stumpy”, who played more than 1,400 NHL regular season and playoff games and notched over 1,000 points for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Ducks and Detroit Red Wings during a 20-year career.
Wouldn’t it get tiresome having to constantly face questions about how you see yourself in comparison to a father of significant hockey stature?
“No, it’s fine,” Christian says with a chuckle. “They always come, but I have to know that’s going to happen.”
While Christian continues to face comparisons to his dad with a smile and a quiet, mild-mannered demeanor, he has very clear and realistic intentions of following in his father’s footsteps to the NHL.
And his résumé suggests he’s on the right track.
The 5’9”, 170-pound forward was drafted 13th overall by the London Knights in the 2008 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection. He would go on to score just 11 points in 32 games for the Knights before getting moved to the Oshawa Generals as part of a package of players and picks for OHL stars John Tavares and Michael Del Zotto – one of the biggest trades in OHL history to this day.
“I was just getting used to my billet house and everything, so it was kind of different,” Christian said of the move from London to Oshawa. “But it worked out really well for me.”
Did it ever.
After notching 14 points in 27 games for Oshawa to wrap up his rookie season in 2008-2009, the Toronto, Ontario native emerged as a junior hockey force over the next three seasons. He scored 41 goals as a 17-year-old en route to getting selected 40th overall by the New York Rangers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Then he followed that up with a 54-goal, 99-point season in 2010-2011 – making Christian and Steve the only father-son duo to each score 50 goals in a Canadian Hockey League season. With opponents on high alert of Christian’s elite shot, stickhandling and quickness, his final OHL season wasn’t quite as productive, but he finished strong with 34 goals and 33 assists in 55 games.
Following an early end to his 2011-2012 junior season, Christian headed to the Connecticut Whale for an 11-game stint with the Rangers’ American Hockey League affiliate, so he already had a taste of AHL action before joining the club full time in 2012-2013.
He had a slow start to his first full pro campaign, registering just one point in his first five games. He found there was an adjustment period.
“At the beginning, it’s tough to get ice,” Christian says. “You’re one of the younger guys and you’ve got to perform to get noticed and get put out there more. I thought as the season went on, I was getting better, I was putting points on the board and I got some more ice.
“I was used to being the older guy on my junior team, then walking into a room with some guys who have some kids and are married, it was a lot different at first.”
Christian picked up his play as the season went on and became an offensive catalyst for the Whale. He finished the season third on the team in goals with 19 and fourth in points with 35, despite being at least four years younger than the teammates who finished ahead of him.
His progress throughout the season earned him his first call-up to the NHL, where he suited up in one game for the Rangers in Montreal against the Canadiens.
“The guys were saying it’s probably the best first game you could ever play in,” Christian says. “It was packed in there. Obviously I was really nervous, but the nerves went away and it was just a normal hockey game.”
That first game in Montreal was just a taste of what could be a regular occurrence in Christian’s future. On July 2, the speedy forward was traded by the Rangers to the Canadiens in exchange for forward Danny Kristo.
The first trade in Christian’s career worked out for him, so he’s taking an optimistic approach the second time around.
“Getting traded, for me, is another opportunity to make something happen and hopefully play on the big team,” Christian says.
A perfect scenario for Christian has him playing in Montreal this season, but he also sees the value in developing in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs. If he ends up in Hamilton, he’s looking forward to playing close to family and friends in Southern Ontario.
“Hopefully I’m with the Habs, but if I’m (in Hamilton), it’ll be great,” Christian says. “It’s close to home and it’s kind of like the junior team I played for in Oshawa, just 45 minutes to an hour away, so I can see my family as well.”
While it’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Christian will have on an NHL club down the road, one thing is very clear: he intends to step out from his father’s shadow to make a name for himself, one way or another. But he’ll consider himself lucky if he can carve out a professional career that looks anything close to his dad’s.
“People always compare us,” Christian says. “They ask if I think I play like him. They say I resemble him a bit. But if I can have a career like him, it would be unbelievable.”