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Weird, wacky Joe Thornton still looms large

Ken Campbell
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Jumbo Joe Thornton still looms large

Joe Thornton.

Author: Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

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Weird, wacky Joe Thornton still looms large

Ken Campbell
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Joe Thornton is ‘weird’ – and a refreshing throwback to the days when star players knew they were special and weren’t afraid to say so.

Reason No. 8,571 why it’s so freakin’ sweet to be an NHL player: they get into the Hockey Hall of Fame for free. We know that because Joe Thornton dropped that nugget on us the day before the Stanley Cup final. You probably have to show some kind of card, but we’re thinking these days Thornton would be able to just show up and walk in. So that means ‘Jumbo’ saves a cool 48 bucks each time he visits with his wife and two kids. The savings will rocket up to $60 next year when his son, River, turns four and otherwise would be subject to the $12 youth entry fee. Thornton can take the hit, considering he will have made $96,675,000 in career earnings when his contract with the San Jose Sharks expires after this season. “I would pay,” Thornton said about his Hall visits, “but they give it to us for free.”

The debate on whether or not Thornton deserves to be a permanent fixture in the Hall of Fame is reserved for another day. (Are you kidding? Of course he deserves it. Just look at his numbers.) It’s certainly not a debate into which Thornton is going to allow himself to be dragged. “I’ve always been really good at staying in the moment my whole career,” he said. “I just stay within myself.”

That’s the Joe Thornton much of the hockey establishment wants, the one who stays in the moment, stays within himself. The way Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews do. Have you ever noticed that as players get younger and more wildly talented, the way they portray themselves publicly is inversely proportional? Whatever happened to the days when kids came into the NHL with as much personality as talent, or in Alexander Daigle’s case, more personality than talent? Where are the Chris Prongers, the Jeff O’Neills, the Jaromir Jagrs?

They’re falling by the wayside like slow-footed defensemen. Thankfully, Thornton refuses to succumb. He has been traded, had the captaincy stripped of him, been burned by a media member who published an exchange that was clearly off the record, yet Thornton carries on, true to himself. “What he should do is just shut up,” John Tortorella once said of Thornton. “Joe hasn’t won a goddamn thing in this league. He could go down as one of the better players in our league never to win anything.”

Tortorella said those words almost five years ago now, and sadly Thornton still hasn’t won the biggest prize in the game. He came close but got shut down in a Stanley Cup final that was hardly an oil painting. It was tough not to cheer for Thornton through last spring’s Stanley Cup run – a player who is a throwback in more ways than one. He speaks what’s on his mind. In an era in which the hockey world seems obsessed with possessing the puck for as long as possible, Thornton still thinks it’s best to give it to someone else. But it’s the candor you love about him. With his team two games away from getting to the Stanley Cup final, he came up with this: “I know I’m a great player.” Then on media day before the final began, he spoke of the pressure he faced to take full advantage of the biggest chance in his career to win a Stanley Cup: “Yeah, really, if you know me, it doesn’t affect me. I know it. I know I’m a great player. I’m really good. I’ll tell you that all day.”

Thornton’s body of work tells you he’s absolutely right. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only 13 players in NHL history have averaged a point per game in a season when they were older than Thornton was 2015-16. The only three who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are Daniel Alfredsson, Martin St-Louis and Phil Goyette, but Alfredsson and St-Louis should be taken care of in 2017 and 2018, respectively. So, yes, Thornton is a great player. All the great ones know they are, which is part of what makes them great when they’re at the height of the powers and a tad diluted when everyone but them seems to recognize the game has passed them by. But when was the last time you heard a hockey player declare himself great? And the thing was, when Thornton said it, he wasn’t making any bold proclamations. It was as though he was stating an obvious truth, such as hockey is played on frozen water.

“He was a really different kid. Like he never wanted anything. He never wanted toys, he never wanted Christmas presents. He’s just a weird guy.”

It’s because there’s perhaps no player in the game today more comfortable in his own skin than Thornton. And the reason for that goes way back to the small city in southwestern Ontario where he grew up.

Jumbo the Circus Elephant died in St. Thomas, Ont., when a locomotive hit him in 1885. Ninety-four years later, Jumbo the Hockey Player was born in St. Thomas to Wayne and Mary Thornton. Wayne worked at the tire factory that supplied the Ford assembly line in town and Mary worked as a secretary. By the time he was 14, Joe was playing Jr. B hockey, and by 15 he was the most dominant player in a league where he played against players three and four years older. “It just goes back to Mom and Dad, that’s where it comes from,” said Thornton’s older brother and agent, John. “He’s been himself. Even in Boston, he had the smile and enjoyed hockey, and he didn’t let other guys get him down. Plenty of people have tried to get Joe down in his career.”

Thornton’s tenure in Boston was a rollercoaster of ups and downs. In his first year in the league, as an 18-year-old, he was completely out of his element, a frequent healthy scratch who largely saw fourth-line duty and played just eight minutes a game. One story goes that during a practice that season, coach Pat Burns was explaining a drill to the team, then looked to Thornton and said, “This drill is only for guys who are committed, so just go over in the corner.” (The interesting thing is that Thornton looks back at hard-ass coaches such as Burns and Mike Keenan as some of the most positive influences on his career.) It didn’t help that in that season, fellow rookie Sergei Samsonov, who was taken seven picks after Thornton, played 15 minutes a game and scored 47 points en route to winning the Calder Trophy.

Six-and-a-half seasons later, Thornton was dealt to the Sharks and became the first player in NHL history to win the Hart Trophy after being traded mid-season. It was a deal that irrevocably altered both franchises. It gave the Bruins the salary cap space to sign Zdeno Chara, and they won the Stanley Cup five years after dealing Thornton. The Sharks got a generational talent at the height of his talents, a player who would go on to lead the league in assists three straight seasons and make a 50-goal scorer out of Jonathan Cheechoo. The local critics haven’t been nearly as harsh in San Jose, but pundits around the league seem to still have strong opinions. Most of them are based on the fact that prior to this year’s final, Thornton had played 150 playoff games without appearing in the fourth round and much of the Sharks’ well-documented playoff failures fell at his feet. Then came losing the captaincy, which may not seem like a huge deal, until you realize the symbolic importance attached to being a captain of an NHL team.

An NHL captaincy carries with it far more than just the responsibility for being the team’s on-ice advocate with the officials. It’s also a statement about a player’s character and his ability to back words with actions. Captains are usually voted on by teammates, and by electing a teammate captain, those players are telling the world they stand behind the man wearing the ‘C’, that he represents everything they are about. And that was all taken away when the management and coaching staff made the change. This is something that almost never ends well. But after a very public airing of their differences, with Thornton at one point saying that GM Doug Wilson, “should just shut his mouth,” it hasn’t been an issue since. “I think I was upset for maybe a day or two,” Thornton said. “It’s so long ago, but you get over things quick, you’ve got to. And once that happened, a lot of my ex-teammates, former teammates, coaches, they all sent great texts and phoned me. If you know me, it really wasn’t a big deal.”

It helps that Sharks coach Peter DeBoer, who took over for Todd McLellan prior to last season, includes Thornton as part of a leadership group with the Sharks. Clearly, DeBoer has assuaged any hard feelings, if there ever were any in the first place. So Thornton doesn’t wear the ‘C’ anymore. But DeBoer makes it clear that does not keep him from having a prominent part of the team’s dynamic. “One of the greatest leaders I’ve been around, hands down,” DeBoer gushed during the Stanley Cup final. “I’m not talking just teams I’ve coached in the regular season in the NHL. I’ve coached World Championship and world junior teams. He’s an unbelievable combination of professionalism and work ethic, and has a great, casual, relaxed way around the dressing room where he makes everybody feel included. This guy is a fantastic leader.”

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"I’m going to play as long as I can because I love coming to the rink. I do love the guys. I like the fellowship. I just like everything about it. I’m just really passionate about the game of hockey."

It is that ability to be inclusive that has become part of the Thornton lore. Whether it’s looking out for the members of the training staff or trying to convince media relations guys to stay in the organization instead of taking a job elsewhere, it is all about the team for Thornton. So it should come as no surprise that Thornton is so quick to pass the puck. At his best, he is a selfless player. The guy is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds. You don’t think he could do some damage if he drove the net? He’d probably score a few more goals, but he believes his team is better off with him making sublime passes and creating even more scoring chances. To hear his brother tell it, there’s not a lot of selfishness there. “Joe sees the game a lot different than the rest of us,” John Thornton said. “Corsi measures shots, yet Joe creates more than anybody else without shooting. People have never understood that. Joe sees the game a little differently, and I think my parents just taught him to see life a little differently, too.”

Now that’s interesting. And it was something John noticed about his brother from a very early age, both on and off the ice: “He was a really different kid. Like he never wanted anything. He never wanted toys, he never wanted Christmas presents. He’s just a weird guy.”

But good weird. One story has it that Thornton prompted the Sharks to issue each player a bathrobe for post-game interviews after seeing Thornton’s preponderance for often doing them au naturel. Even now, he often does his interviews barechested, which you don’t see very often. But he’s not an entirely open book. During the final, one of the Sharks mentioned Thornton is good friends with Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, who was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer in May of 2016. When one inquisitor managed to get him alone for a moment during the final to talk about it, he was quickly shut down when Thornton bluntly said, “I’m not talking about that,” all the while with a smile on his face but also a tone that suggested it was a subject not open to discussion.

It will be interesting to see where Thornton’s career goes after this season. He’ll be 38 and a pending UFA next summer, but his play suggests there’s still some jump in his game. When Thornton signed his current deal with San Jose two years ago, it was done in conjunction with Patrick Marleau. It was important to Thornton that the organization was committed to both him and Marleau, the player drafted right after him in 1997. It’s difficult to think both will be back with the Sharks in 2017-18, but that’s still a full year away. “Like I said before, I don’t worry about too much,” Thornton said. “I just go day by day. I’m going to play as long as I can because I love coming to the rink. I do love the guys. I like the fellowship. I just like everything about it. I’m just really passionate about the game of hockey. It’s all I know and I love it.”

It seems Thornton intends on being around for a while. He might be one of those players who, a couple years down the road, will need to be told by every team in the league that he can no longer play. Or perhaps he’ll realize it one day himself when he can no longer live up to his own standard. For now, Thornton not only loves playing but actually likes the burn of the off-season preparation it takes to be an NHL player. And that’s usually the first thing that goes. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the Yearbook issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

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Weird, wacky Joe Thornton still looms large