When former Vermont coach Mike Gilligan thinks about two of his favorite former players, Lightning wing Marty St. Louis and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, plenty of similarities between the two come to mind. They are cut from the same competitive cloth: battlers who had to overcome the odds and "labor through a lot of organizations that weren't believing in them in the early going," Gilligan said.
It was that drive that helped St. Louis, 35, go from being undrafted to NHL MVP and Stanley Cup winner, and helped Thomas, 37, persevere through several seasons in the minors and in Europe before making it to the NHL at age 28 and turning into arguably the league's top goaltender.
"Both," Gilligan said, "have the hearts of lions."
St. Louis and Thomas have been good friends since starring for the Catamounts from 1993-97, but the stakes for a reunion have never been higher. The two meet in the Eastern Conference final beginning Saturday in Boston.
To Gilligan, the stage is fitting.
"It proves to a lot of young athletes and proves to a lot of guys that don't get a break," Gilligan said. "Both are great role models for fighting their way into things."
The way St. Louis and Thomas played in college, it's surprising to Gilligan they had to wait so long to get a shot in the NHL.
St. Louis was a three-time finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey's top player. He paired with former Lightning player Eric Perrin for a dynamic one-two punch.
"He was probably one of the top players I've ever seen in college," Gilligan said. "He sees the game like he was sitting in the stands looking down at the ice. He knows what plays to make all the time. You couple that with tremendous heart and work ethic, and it's quite a package.
"Whenever Marty touched the puck, everyone was on their feet because they just knew something was going to happen."
For Gilligan, it was hard keeping St. Louis off the ice. He said no one played more minutes in four years.
"He'd come to the bench sometime and I wouldn't even open the doors," Gilligan said. "Just let him rest and get back out there."
When the Catamounts slipped, Thomas was there to save them. He remains third all time in Division I career saves (3,950). Gilligan said Thomas was more "happy-go-lucky" than the serious St. Louis but in the net was a picture of intensity.
"Timmy's style has always been erratic, but centering around the puck and stopping it, he's just so tough," Gilligan said. "He'll take it off the helmet, the shoulder, he'll do anything to stop a shot."
Gilligan said the time of St. Louis and Thomas was the heyday of the Vermont program, a period that included its first Frozen Four appearance, 1996. "That four-year period, we could beat anybody," he said. "A lot of it had to do with those guys."
Gilligan was very surprised St. Louis went undrafted. "I made several calls to people I knew in the business," he said. "They said, 'Maybe if it was a Russian last name they would take a chance on him.' Just because of his lack of height (St. Louis is listed at 5 feet 8). A lot of people missed the boat on him."
St. Louis' career took off after he joined the Lightning in 2000 as a free agent, the peak so far being voted the 2004 league MVP and winning the Stanley Cup that year.
Thomas followed St. Louis from afar.
"It was pretty awesome being able to watch him when he won the Cup, and it's been awesome watching him on TV for a number of years," Thomas said. "These past few years, I've been able to join the party, so to speak."
Thomas spent several years in the minors and overseas, including four stints in Finland. He was in the Lightning's training camp before the 1999-2000 season. He didn't make his NHL debut until 2002 with the Bruins. He seized Boston's starting role in 2007 and won the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender in 2009.
Thomas is a Vezina finalist again this year. St. Louis, after his sixth 30-goal season, is a finalist for league MVP.
"(Thomas) battled through it just like I did, and the success he had is well-earned," St. Louis said. "You have to admire that."
Gilligan said he will try to attend one of the first two East final games in Boston. In the arena, he likely will sit on his hands like he usually does when watching St. Louis and Thomas play, afraid to root for either.
"I grew up outside of Boston," Gilligan said. "But when Marty plays, I don't say a word."