MONTREAL — When Matt Tomkins was a young boy growing up in the Edmonton area, Patrick Roy was finishing up his Hall of Fame playing career with the Colorado Avalanche. In his final three seasons of professional hockey, Roy won a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Jennings Trophy and finished top-five in Vezina Trophy voting all three years, from age 35 to 37.
At the time, Tomkins was not a goaltender in minor hockey. But watching Roy inspired him to make the switch at around the age of 10, or just after Roy retired with 551 career NHL victories and 151 playoff wins.
From that time onward, Tomkins has been waiting for his first NHL win, a journey inspired by Roy, whose No. 33 hangs from the rafters among the retired numbers at the Bell Centre.
It took nearly 20 years and a route that passed through the NCAA, the ECHL, the AHL and the SHL in Sweden, but Tomkins finally arrived Tuesday night, winning his first NHL game at age 29 in a 5-3 Tampa Bay Lightning victory against the Montreal Canadiens.
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“A lot,” Tomkins said when asked what was going through his mind in the immediate aftermath of the win. “Obviously, reflecting back on the road to get here. I took the long way, for sure, but it’s made it that much more rewarding to be part of this group and contribute and obviously get the first win. It’s pretty special.”
As he mentioned his family and the support he’s gotten on this circuitous journey, his voice began to crack a bit. The emotion was obvious.
“There’s been a lot of stops along the way and a lot of people helping and encouraging and supporting,” he said. “You think of everyone, but obviously first and foremost my family, they’ve been there since day one and given me this opportunity to be here.”
Once the final buzzer sounded, the Lightning’s Alex Barré-Boulet scooped up the milestone puck to keep it for Tomkins. It was quickly grabbed by veteran Victor Hedman, who then made a beeline for Tomkins and put him in a headlock as he congratulated him. In the Lightning dressing room after the game, loud applause could be heard from outside as the entire team celebrated this unique first NHL win. Lightning coach Jon Cooper presented Tomkins with the game puck, and teammates Tomkins said he grew up watching on television couldn’t have been happier for him.
“That was really cool,” Tomkins said. “They made the night really special right from the start, and to do it here in Montreal is so cool.”
On Tuesday morning, with most of those teammates resting after a late night of travel from Toronto, where they suffered a roller-coaster 6-5 loss in overtime, Tomkins stepped into the Bell Centre for the first time as he took the ice to prepare for this game. As he did, he looked up and saw Roy’s banner hanging there and soaked in the history of the building.
“That was cool skating around,” Tomkins said. “It’s a different feeling being in a building like this, all the history and everything that’s gone on with the organization over many, many years. You feel a different energy in here. So it’s really exciting to get the opportunity to play here, and then obviously to get the win with the guys and get my first one, a day I’ll never forget.”
His family, he quietly admitted, were Canadiens fans when he was growing up, and his favorite goalie was Carey Price.
It was almost as if it was meant to be.
“Just an extra special thing to do it here in Montreal,” he said.
As Tomkins removed his equipment, the Lightning’s player of the game award hanging in his locker, every teammate that walked by gave him an extra bit of congratulations. Stories like this are rare in the NHL, and everyone in that dressing room seemed happy to be a part of it.
“He’s such a grounded kid, and the fact that he’s kept his dream alive all these years should be an inspiration for a lot of people and a lot of kids growing up,” Cooper said. “To see his dream come true, and I truly believe, it was probably meant to be the way it played out for him to get to play in the hallowed ground of Montreal.
“There’s no better place to come in as a visiting team and play here, and to have that under your belt, nobody can ever take that away from you.”
(Photo: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)