By Connie Jensen
Scott Thornton had an extensive NHL career that saw him play for six different teams over 17 seasons. The rugged left winger amassed 285 points and 1459 penalty minutes over that span, but upon retirement in 2008 Thornton wanted to accomplish something that had been on his mind since before his career had even begun: An Ironman triathlon.
In 1991, Thornton was part of the Canadian world junior team that captured gold in Saskatoon. It was there that his love of Ironman racing began. A few days before the tournament started, the coaching staff played a video of Dick Hoyt, who pushed, pulled and carried his quadriplegic son, Rick, through all parts of the competition.
“It was a very inspirational movie and kind of helped all of us get through our Christmas blues that we had at the time,” Thornton said. “Since then I have watched Ironman Kona (the world championship) every year on TV.”
Thornton has stayed active post-hockey. He owns a CrossFit gym in Collingwood, Ont., where he spends about six hours a day training others. He had the opportunity to meet local Ironman star Claudia Johnston, who shared her experiences with him. Thornton liked what he heard and soon after met with Barrie Shepley, the Canadian Olympic triathlon coach and the man who helped Simon Whitfield win gold in Sydney in 2000.
“Next thing I know I’m signed up for Austria,” Thornton said.
At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds Thornton was far from an ideal candidate for an Ironman. Most triathletes are smaller as carrying extra muscle mass is a detriment. The optimal weight for a male is around 150 pounds.
If Thornton’s size unusual for an Ironman race, so was his way of preparing: “I really wanted to prove that Crossfit training could be effective endurance training, so we designed a specific program for me that’s different than most triathletes.”
From November to July, Thornton hit the gym every day, doing six-hour bike rides - even in the pouring rain - and countless laps in the pool.
In March, he even climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his wife Joelle.
“That is the last thing I would want to put in the program,” Shepley said, “but he was going to fulfill this commitment to his wife on this project that they were going to do together.”
Before Thornton's training began, Shepley found some statistics about former NHLers who had also participated in Ironman. Mike Richter and Pat LaFontaine had competed in a few, so their times set the bar. LaFontaine’s time was best 11 hours and 50 minutes and that became the mark to beat...if only for the number.
“It had nothing to do with Pat and it really had nothing to do with me wanting to be the fastest NHL hockey player. It was just a goal to race towards,” Thornton said.
After eight months of preparation, Thornton, along with 149 other Canadians, headed to Klagenfurt, Austria for the July 3 race. When it came time to hit the starting line, Thornton was ready to go.
“It felt to me like getting ready for a playoff game,” Thornton said. “I was very, very excited, nervous, anxious…I wasn’t scared,”
The first part of the race was the 2.4-mile swim, something Thornton knew would be daunting. But before he took off he made sure to take it all in.
“Standing on the beach with 2600 athletes waiting to go in the water, waiting for that canon to go off was a feeling that I absolutely love, love and seek, so it was incredible,” Thornton said.
He finished the swim in one hour and 26 minutes, which meant he was still on target to beat the record. However, it wasn’t the most comfortable part of the race.
“You’re getting kicked and punched and people are grabbing your feet and you feel like you’re salmon spawning up a river at times,” Thornton said. “So once I got out of the water I felt very relieved.”
Next, Thornton had to cycle two 90-kilometer loops through the mountains. When he finished he was within one minute of the time he needed to be in order to break the record.
“At this point I thought, ‘Hey, this is no longer just a pipe dream. The guy is two-thirds of the way and he’s still on time,’ ” Shepley said.
The 26.2-mile run was last - and Thornton struggled. Halfway through he was four to six minutes behind his target. After some encouragement from Shepley on the sidelines, however, Thornton started picking up the pace and was passing people all the way to the end.
He completed the Ironman in 11 hours and 38 minutes, breaking LaFontaine’s record.
“The vast majority of people at 13 miles are hurting so bad that when they fall off the time they want they never get it back,” Shepley said. “So it was a huge accomplishment and a huge task for a big guy.”
Thornton’s children, Nash, 15, and Zoe, 11, jumped over the barricade as he ran in.
“I was just wrapped with emotion,” Thornton said.
Although Shepley believes Thornton could shave 30 to 40 minutes off his time, Thornton isn’t certain he will be doing another Ironman right away. For now he's satisfied with the top-notch memories of his first adventure.
“It’s hard to believe I did it, it still hasn’t sunk in,” he said. “It’s something for so many years I’ve respected and watched people do and thought, ‘Holy crap man, one day I’ll try to do one myself.’ It’s pretty neat. It’s a good feeling.
“I had some good moments in my career, big games and things, and this would match right up there.”
For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.