SUN Hockey Pool

Simmons says

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

The hockey player without a team goes back to work today, back to skating and sweating it out with junior kids who weren't even alive when he scored his first goal as a Maple Leaf 21 years and 1,235 games ago.

Steve Thomas won't quit, maybe can't quit, because this is all he knows and this is all he wants.

He has no job in professional hockey, hasn't had an offer of any kind since the Leafs let him go in training camp, but won't give up on his Stanley Cup dream. He is 42 years old and steadfast he still has something to offer.

"I've always been a dreamer," Thomas said in a long conversation yesterday. "I've always thought about carrying that Cup around. My whole career has been like a dream and that's the only part that hasn't been completed.

SUPPORTIVE

"People can say I'm a dreamer all they want, but that's all I care about. My wife says 'Go for it.' She's totally supportive. My kids are supportive. My son said 'Dad, if you've got a chance, go, I want you to play.'

"I don't want to seem like one of those of old guys just trying to hold on. I don't feel that way. I still have a passion for it like you wouldn't believe. This is what I love to do."

Stumpy was the feel-good story of the Maple Leafs training camp until the book was apparently closed on his career. He went through camp and wasn't offered a contract. The Leafs didn't attempt to sign him and no one else in the National Hockey League even called.

Other people would give it up, call it a career, say goodbye. But other people aren't made like Thomas, who wasn't drafted, was never supposed to be anything other than a spare part, and found a way to score 421 goals in a terrific run of more than two decades.

"It's hard," he admitted, about being forced into unemployment when every part of him believes he can still play. "I've heard other players say it's hard to make the transition. You listen, but you don't really think about it when you're playing because you can't relate to it. And then it's you and you start thinking about it.

"But until I'm ready to do that, to accept it, I'll continue doing what I'm doing. I have to put that love I have at the forefront. I don't have the closure yet that's necessary for me to call it a career."

In the summer, before training camp, the pros who played pickup hockey in the Toronto area always talked about two players. One was Jason Spezza, who was dominant in the games.

The other was Thomas.

Spezza has been among the best NHL players this season. Thomas has watched from the outside, envisioning places and spaces where he could make a difference.

The Maple Leafs let him go and then turned around and signed Mariusz Czerkawski instead. Czerkawski's contribution to date has been to play the role of the invisible Leaf.

At no time, on any of the six teams in which he played, was Thomas considered invisible.

"Yeah, I wonder (about that one)," Thomas said. "I'm not here to pump my own tires with the experience I've had and how I've thrived in the hockey environment here in Toronto, but this environment always brought out the best in me.

"That's the way I look at it."

What he is too polite to say is: Forget age, how could anybody pick Czerkawski over me?

But that's old news now.

The season is half over and the dream is running out of steam, even if his belief remains as spirited as ever.

For now, he will continue to train with the junior kids, hoping somebody in need of a winger calls, somebody with a chance to win, somebody looking to rent an old leader for the stretch run.

"You never know who it's going to be," Thomas said. "I was on a team in Anaheim that got on a roll and the sky can be the limit. You feel that once, you want to feel it again."

And if no one calls?

"If that happens, I'll announce my retirement and move on. I can't hang around forever."

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