After an 18-year odyssey marked by playoff flops and an unceremoniously stripped captaincy, Joe Thornton stayed true to his game and to San Jose.
This story appears in the June 6, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe, click here.
At about 9:30 on the night of Sept. 15, 1885, in the small southwestern Ontario city of St. Thomas, Jumbo the Elephant was being led through the rail yards to his boxcar after a performance with the Barnum, Bailey & Hutchinson Circus when an unscheduled westbound freight train hurtled down the tracks and slammed Jumbo from behind, dragging him 100 yards. One hundred men were needed to free the body of the nearly 12-foot tall, 6-1/2-ton African elephant. Ashes to ashes. Tusk to dust. The tragic demise of the world’s first four-legged superstar is marked by a plaque that abuts the tracks, some 200 yards northeast of the old Northside Arena, where Joe Thornton, the NHL’s Jumbo, played youth hockey.
St. Thomas is where Thornton grew up. And up. The Sharks center stands 6' 4" and 220 pounds, his imposing stature accentuated this spring by a luxurious expanse of beard that looks as if it were modeled on a daguerreotype of a Civil War general. (The Confederacy’s John Bell Hood, to be precise. You can look it up.) Thornton is not the biggest player, physically or metaphorically, in the Stanley Cup Final; Penguins star Sidney Crosby has a chance to win the Cup for a second time. Still Thornton wears the nickname honestly even though Glen Murray, Thornton’s old right wing in Boston, who with Bruins teammate Travis Green popularized Jumbo Joe, says he had no idea of the link between Thornton’s hometown and the world-renowned pachyderm. Unlike the fate of the original Jumbo, who would be re-imagined into big-eared Dumbo to the delight of 20th Century America’s youth, “Jumbo Joe” was a happy accident.
“You know how in sports you’re always looking for the right fit?” asks Murray, now a Kings player development coach. “How a guy fits on a team, on a line, in a dressing room? Well, here’s a nickname that just fit. His name was Joe. And he was really big.”
The Stanley Cup window seemingly had slammed shut on San Jose. In 2014 the Sharks coughed up a 3–0 first-round series lead against Los Angeles, leaving Thornton teary-eyed near the bench—Mourning Joe—and then missed the playoffs last spring after 10 straight appearances. Once the hockey world sighed, shrugged and moved on from its annual this-is-finally-San-Jose’s-year conjecturing, some sharp retooling—which included a new coach in Peter DeBoer, a new goalie in Martin Jones, a formidable winger in Joel Ward and the steady hand of veteran free agent defenseman Paul Martin—pried it back open. Thornton, direct and disarming, bopping to music on the bench and kibitzing with young St. Louis fans during a timeout in the conference finals, is the breath of fresh air coming in that window.
“I laughed when I saw him on TV being interviewed during that series without a shirt,” says Scott Thornton, whose 941-game NHL career included one season in San Jose with his first cousin, who was traded there in 2005–06. (Bruins general manager Mike O’Connell had signed Jumbo to a three-year, $20 million contract in August ’05 but ditched him three months later, a classic case of buyer’s remorse.) “Joe’s the reason we got bathrobes in San Jose. After a game he’d be doing interviews naked or he’d have a jock strap on, innocent things for him, so they went out and bought us official San Jose Sharks bathrobes.”
Thornton’s march to the Penguins does not represent a case of revisionist history for a career that has included a scoring title, a Hart Trophy, an Olympic gold medal and a World Cup. As he said with a smile, but no guile, following Game 3 against St. Louis, “I know I’m a great player.” No, Jumbo’s image is simply being filtered through a different membrane, one that has distilled the bitter residue of playoff failures—the pointless seven-game series in 2004 against Montreal when he played with torn cartilage in his rib cage, that 2009 first-round stumble to Anaheim after the Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy, those defeats in two Western Conference Finals—and left only his virtuosity.
During these Western Conference Finals Blues coach Ken Hitchcock praised Thornton as always being “one of the guys with the highest IQ in the league” and called him easily Team Canada’s best player in the 2004 World Cup. Rather than being chided for his generosity with the puck and modest goal totals—he hasn’t had a 30-plus-goal season since ’02–03 and had just three goals in 18 games entering the finals—Thornton has been larded with praise for his assists, especially one saucer pass behind the goal line to Tomas Hertl in Game 3 against St. Louis, which even upon repeated viewing, remains an optical illusion. “I don’t know how he did that,” Crosby says. “He got it over two sticks and still got the puck down. And it was in San Jose, too. The ice isn’t good there.” Two games later Thornton had three more assists while matched against the Blues’ top defensive pair. (At even strength in Game 5 the Sharks had a 9–4 shot advantage when Thornton was on the ice. When he wasn’t, St. Louis had a 12–11 edge.) Thornton, who ranks 22nd all time in assists per game, apparently now rates as the best passer in the Bay Area since Steve Young, if not Joe Montana. Last Friday, Team Canada, which did not take Thornton to the 2014 Olympics, added him to its World Cup roster for September.
The script for Jumbo and the Sharks, destiny’s erstwhile doormats, has been Disneyfied.
When Thornton skated in his first Stanley Cup Final game on Monday, he already had played in 150 playoff matches. This is not a record. His teammate Patrick Marleau had played in 15 more without a game in the ultimate round. But they both began the week four wins away from a more exclusive distinction, if not exactly an honor: Thornton and Marleau could become only the second and third players to win a Stanley Cup while still with the team that stripped them of the captaincy. Marleau was demoted in 2009, and Thornton, after the first-round collapse in ’14, was busted by former San Jose coach Todd McLellan and by the first captain of the expansion Sharks, the man who has run the organization for 13 years, GM Doug Wilson.
This is the elephant in the room.
"ALL THE QUALITIES YOU ASK FOR IN A CAPTAIN, HE SHOWED THEM BY STAYING," JOHN THORNTON SAYS.
The hockey alphabet starts with the letter c. The captaincy is more than an honorific. It is a totem worn on the jersey just above the heart, a symbol of the physical courage, channeled emotion and leadership skills that are so prized in the game. While NHL teams routinely have leadership groups of as many as eight players, the captaincy is the tradition that anchors hockey to its roots. As Rangers president Glen Sather has said, awarding the letter is “like knighting someone.” The B side of the c? When the title is stripped, it is a public rebuke, an allocation not merely of blame but an implied moral failure.
“I know from guys who played with Joe that it wasn’t a lack of leadership. The team was criticized for playoff flops, but that wasn’t because he was captain,” says Vincent Lecavalier, the only player to have won with the same team after losing his captaincy. After becoming the youngest captain in NHL history, at 19 in 2000, he was stripped in Tampa Bay 18 months later, but he was still a Lightning star when they won the Cup in ’04. (A 22-year-old Joe Sakic lost his co-captaincy in Quebec for one season but was back wearing the c when the franchise won the 1996 Stanley Cup in Colorado.) Lecavalier’s situation was obviously different from Thornton’s. He was a callow 21 when the Lightning moved his letter to veteran Dave Andreychuk. Thornton was 35.
The San Jose captain controversy erupted in March 2015 during a season in which no Shark wore the c. (Joe Pavelski, Thornton’s right wing, was named captain before the start of this season.) In a question-and-answer session with season ticket holders, Wilson, according to the San Jose Mercury News, said, “The reason we took the c off him ... Joe carries the weight of the team on his shoulders, and he’s got such a big heart that when stress comes on him, he lashes out at people and it kind of impacts him. The pressure and stress, I felt, was getting to Joe.” Thornton riposted in the newspaper, “All I’ve got to say is, I’ve been here every day working hard. I haven’t taken a sabbatical. He just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth.” The last time there was this much drama over a letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan Boston was hanging a scarlet a on Hester Prynne.
Thornton, now an alternate captain, made his peace. In the corridor outside the Sharks’ dressing room on the eve of the final he said, “I think a lot of people would have fled, but it’s just in my character to want to stay. Initially it was kind of like, Damn, why are they doing this? But I got over it quickly. Probably in a couple of days. All of my teammates and ex-teammates phoned and gave me lots of support. So I figured, Why dwell on it? You’re a great player still, and you’re going to play great and help this team win.” While acknowledging the initial tension, Pavelski said, “Jumbo told me early, ‘You’re the man. Let’s go to work.’” Although Wilson outlined a one-step-backward-to-go-two-forward plan after San Jose missed the playoffs last spring, Thornton said he never considered waiving, nor was he asked to waive, a no-movement clause in a contract that runs through the end of next season. As it were, the Sharks train happened to arrive slightly ahead of schedule.
“Character, commitment, leadership ... all the qualities that you ask for in a captain, he actually showed them by staying,” says John Thornton, Joe’s older brother and his agent for the last decade.
“If there ever was a guy who could play with the same team after that and become an [alternate] captain, it’s him,” Lecavalier says. “He has the right temperament.”
Thornton has made the conscious decision to greet life with a smile, an approach he brought to Boston even when Hall of Fame coach Pat Burns was carving into the first pick of the 1997 draft almost daily. In Thornton’s sanguine world the Stanley Cup has always been half full. When he was left off the 2002 Olympic team, he was as excited that Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky had called him personally with the news as he was disappointed in not being called to Salt Lake City. Thornton was chosen for the ’02 All-Star Game in Los Angeles. The Air Canada flight to the West Coast from Montreal—the Bruins had played there the previous night—was packed. The guy on the aisle, 15D, was delighted that the adjacent middle seat was still empty 10 minutes before takeoff. Just before the door closed, Thornton ducked into the airplane and galumphed his way down the aisle. He was 15E.
“Joe, I’m really sorry,” 15D said. “I’d switch seats with you, but I’m claustrophobic, see, and ...”
“No problem,” Thornton said. “I’ll probably sleep most of the way, anyway.”
And so after 20 minutes of hockey chitchat, Thornton curled up and slept for five hours. An NHL All-Star. Six-foot-four. Two-twenty. Middle seat. Coach. Six-hour flight. Not a whisper of complaint.
THORNTON IS 36. HE'S PLAYED 18 SEASONS. HE'S WAITED HALF HIS LIFE FOR THESE FINALS.
On Jan. 9, after some failed experimentation, DeBoer reinvented his top line. He bumped Hertl, a center by trade, to left wing with Thornton and Pavelski, who are also natural centers. Thornton and Pavelski had been among the most productive pairs of this decade, but Hertl proved himself a worthy complement, scoring twice in his first game with the Joes. Now Thornton had one more talented target. When asked about Thornton, Hertl, who had 17 of his 21 goals after moving to the line, blurts, “Jumbo has meant everything to me. He makes it easy."
Maybe the rides in Jumbo Land haven’t lasted as long as Thornton has hoped or the hockey world once anticipated, but everyone seems to have a good time along the way. Jonathan Cheechoo had 56- and 37-goal seasons while flanking Thornton in the mid-2000s. Wingers Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, both beneficiaries of Thornton largesse, cratered after departing San Jose. The motto: Leave Jumbo, see Europe. (Cheechoo, Heatley and Setoguchi played in Belarus, Germany and Switzerland, respectively, this season.) There is a solid rapport between Thornton and Pavelski, a puck-tipping wizard who has 116 goals over the past three regular seasons, the second most in the NHL during that period, but even their partnership is skewed. Thornton’s play does not flag noticeably on the occasions he is not on the ice with Pavelski, but Pavelski’s does when he does not have Thornton dishing. When the two were on the ice together this season, the Sharks averaged 3.49 goals per 60 minutes; when Pavelski was playing without him, the team’s output dropped by more than half, to 1.71. Meanwhile, San Jose’s goals-per-60 average declined by just 6.0%, to 3.28, whenever Thornton played apart from his prolific playmate.
|Player||With 2007-15||Without 2007-15|
“Hey, I love seeing the smiles of my teammates when they score,” Thornton says. He pauses. “Besides, it’s my job.”
Thornton is 36 years old. He has played 18 NHL seasons. He has waited half his life for these finals, for the moment a confessed great player never doubted would arrive. A red letter day might await him in a week’s time. And while his letter is an a and not a c and the Stanley Cup will go first to Pavelski and not to the leading player in the quarter century history of the Sharks, Jumbo Joe will gladly wait a few more seconds to hold it.
See, a Cup-winning team is a lot like passengers on a six-hour flight. Business or coach, aisle, middle or window, they all arrive together.