It was all over on April 8. Following the Florida Panthers’ 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres in Sunrise, forward Shawn Thornton hung up his skates, in a manner of speaking.
His Reebok Ribcor skates went straight into the trash.
The career enforcer was done with them, after 20 pro hockey seasons, 14 of them at the NHL level, spent skating, punching and occasionally scoring with the Panthers, Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. On May 30, he’ll officially retire as a two-time Stanley Cup winner with 1,103 penalty minutes to his credit in 705 NHL games.
It wasn’t the first time he’d moved on from a pair of blades, but he planned on it being his last.
“After we won the Cup in Anaheim [in 2007] I threw my skates in the garbage,” Thornton told SI.com with the air of someone telling the run-up to a joke. “It turned out someone actually grabbed them,” he said, incredulous. “Who the hell would want to own a pair of my skates?”
Wherever those skates ended up is a mystery lost to time. This wasn’t the last time he’d see his final pair, though.
“I was joking around with [Florida Panthers equipment assistant,] Brian Godin, telling him that story,” Thornton continued. “I told him, you can 100 percent be sure after this last game I'm throwing my skates in the garbage and I don't think anybody's going to want them.
“We were laughing about it but I'm like, no, I'm 100 percent serious: I'm throwing them in the garbage, never putting them on again,” said Thornton. “I just kept my word.”
While the rest of his team headed off to Washington, D.C. for the final game of the season, once Thornton had finished his interviews and the last reporters had slowly filtered out of the dressing room he dressed and dropped his skates in the closest trash bin, usually the destination of empty bottles of Gatorade and balls of used tape. That done, he headed upstairs to celebrate the end of his career with his family and friends.
“I'm just enjoying the thought that I'm never going to have to get punched in the face ever again for the rest of my life,” said Thornton, a player widely known for his self-deprecating quips and even more widely for his career as what he calls “the worst player on each team I’ve been on.”
Over the next few days Thornton got messages from friends and fans, requesting that he auction off his skates, making him re-think his initial plan. What if he could raise some money for his charity, the Shawn Thornton Foundation, through the sale of the skates?
He conceded: if the skates were still there on Tuesday when the Panthers organization held its year-end meetings, he would auction them off for charity.
Then, they just showed up in his equipment bag.
Thornton kept his word a second time and put them up for auction.
Though the re-appearance of the skates was auspicious, Thornton wasn’t expecting to garner much for them. After all, who would want to own a pair of his skates? His charity listed them for $500 on eBay, expecting to sell them for about that.
Instead, the auction page crashed after the site was swarmed with so many bidders vying for the skates Thornton had been so sure would go unnoticed. After a tense couple of days the skates eventually landed with a bidder who prefers to remain anonymous, speaking to SI under the name “Thomas Brown.”
Brown, who works on Wall Street, won the skates for $2,500. Although Brown doesn’t typically collect sports memorabilia, he had a special fondness for Thornton, having met him after a Panthers game once or twice. Upon learning the money would go to Thornton’s foundation, decided to submit a bid of his own, knowing that it was going to a good cause. Brown even braved opening his first-ever eBay account in order to do so.
“Anyone who follows Boston—and now the Panthers—knows that Shawn’s a high-character individual who is very much about giving back,” Brown said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to follow Shawn’s lead in terms of giving back.”
“It's just something I like doing, giving back,” Thornton said. His record is testament to that; he’s been doing charity work on his own and with organizations since starting with the St. John’s Maple Leafs in the AHL in 1997-98.
Thornton was a regular in the pediatric oncology wards through his volunteer work with his various teams and decided to make that a part of his own foundation’s mission.
“You can't come out of a place like a pediatric cancer ward unfazed, seeing kids going through that at such a young age,” Thornton said.
Thornton also decided to focus his charity on Parkinson’s disease; his grandmother Maureen Mills (the "Irish Queen," as Thornton’s family used to call her) died in 2008 after living with Parkinson’s disease for the last 15 years of her life. He wanted to use his platform to bring attention to a disease that doesn’t get the same level of donations or visibility as many other diseases, he explained, as well as help those suffering.
“I had to see the transformation from my healthy grandmother, coming to my hockey games and cheering me on to being in a wheelchair, shaking so hard that she was hammering her arm off the armrest and couldn't get up on her own or talk,” said Thornton.
“I like to think she’d be proud,” he added quietly.
Thornton set up the foundation in 2012 during the NHL lockout when he realized his charity golf tournament, Shawn Thornton Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s, might be at risk. The Bruins Foundation had organized and promoted the event in the past; as a player during the lockout, he wasn’t allowed to have contact during the lockout with the front office.
“Around December, January I started to panic a little bit,” Thornton said, and so he decided to get things moving on his own. “We started it to keep the golf tournament going and then we kept going from there.”
Tom Tinlin, a board member for the Boston Credit Union, as well as foundation board member, foundation clerk and friend of Thornton, remembered the start of the organization very clearly.
“One day,” Tinlin started, “Shawn calls and says, can you have lunch over in Charlestown, and I said yeah, sure—I think it’s credit union business.
“We go over there and, that guy, you know… it almost looked like there was something on his mind,” Tinlin said. “I said, hey, dude, what’s up? He was concerned; Josh Beckett had just been traded from the Red Sox and like him or not, Beckett was involved in raising money for a lot of charities. Shawn thought there was a void there and he was concerned about it. He says, I’m thinking of doing something, will you help me?
“So, I'm thinking, sure, of course,” Tinlin said. “What are we going to do, a Bowl-A-Thon? He says, well, no, I want to start a foundation. And so, over a burger in Charlestown in Boston, Massachusetts was born the Shawn Thornton Foundation.”
“He’s from South Boston so I wasn’t sure he could even drive out to Charlestown,” Thornton joked fondly. That first hurdle overcome, the Foundation has steadily grown ever since.
Now, five years later, Thornton’s foundation gives out approximately $200,000 in funds annually to organizations such as the American Parkinson's Disease Association (APDA), the Jimmy Fund and Boston Children’s Hospital. Thornton has done so much with the APDA that it even named an award after him: the Shawn Thornton Award for Excellence, awarded to an individual who demonstrates outstanding service, dedication and care in support of those living with Parkinson’s disease.
“When they told him that was happening you could see he was overwhelmed,” said Tinlin. “He never saw it coming, never wanted it, all he wanted was to do some good for people who were suffering.”
“It was never about headlines, it was never about letting the papers know he’s going to be at Children's Hospital,” Tinlin added. “It was just more about silently, quietly doing good for others.”
It isn’t unusual for Thornton to do a spontaneous, off-the-record visit to a pediatric cancer ward or charity event. The guy who fought figuratively and literally for every AHL and NHL game, roster and contract, who attended every offseason camp and who bled—and bloodied—for a paycheck, fights for a different kind of justice outside the rink.
“I’ve never really enjoyed [the enforcement] part of it,” Thornton said. “I’d rather score goals, but I was never good at that. But a job’s a job. It was a means to an end. The fact that it put me in a position to start a charity and helped me give back because I had a bit of a stage from playing a sport, that’s great.”
He didn’t start his foundation for the karma, Thornton said, but rather because he believes everybody should be treated with dignity and respect.
And, yes, Thornton knows he carries the same name as the title character in The Quiet Man, a John Wayne classic. “It’s weird that I grew up to fight people, too, and his role in the movie was a boxer from Pittsburgh who moved to Ireland to get away from it. I’ve never killed anybody, thank god, but it is a little coincidental that I ended up in the same role later in life, trying to get away from fighting.”
Thornton’s gift of gab and empathy means he can work a room like no other and come across as entirely genuine—indeed, he is. It was that, along with his charitable spirit that vaulted him to the top of the Panthers’ shortlist for a position in the front office, President and CEO Matt Caldwell told SI.com.
It’s not many that get to leave a 14-year NHL career as an enforcer for a spot in the front office of a growing franchise, but Thornton has managed to do just that, in large part because of his dedication to community. Always the first to volunteer to appear at any Panthers charity event, eventually, Thornton’s presence came to be almost expected.
“He’s very driven,” Caldwell said. “We definitely see him [ending up] as a very senior executive in our organization. I don't know whether as team president, chief operating officer or chief revenue officer but I think he definitely has that potential, to be a top C-level executive with us. We want to see where he fits, first.”
The Panthers brought Thornton in to help with locker-room culture initially but what the organization got in return has been far and away bigger and more important than its employees could ever imagine, Caldwell explained.
“The whole idea was to bring in Shawn to help our hockey team, help them learn how to win, how to have that fierce spirit,” said Caldwell. “We've seen what Shawn did to our locker room, positively and how great he was with our young players, how much of a warrior and leader he was. We're maniacal about culture and having people really care about the company and put its purpose and mission above their own. We just felt Shawn could really bring that, especially to the business side.”
Although Thornton had the opportunity to re-join the Bruins and the New England Sports Network (NESN) as a broadcaster, he turned the job down to stay with the Panthers.
“Television is something I've done and I can always go back to doing that,” Thornton said. “I'm not sure the jobs will be there but as far as the skill set goes, I'll be able to do it. I just saw the potential to learn and the upside in this role was better than going back and doing television again.”
The first month on the new job will see Thornton rotate through every department on the business side: sales, finance, community relations and outreach –– he’ll even get a tour of the facility from a manager’s standpoint and learn about running a rink. No stone will go unturned.
“He's doing real-deal work,” Caldwell said. “It's not like he's just going to a few events, shaking a few hands, doing a few autographs. I'm sure that's going to happen on occasion because of his name and because the community knows him so well but he's showing up to work every day. We're going to have him in front of a computer. We're going to have him on the phone. He's going to be sending emails. I'm going to be sending him Excel sheets and he's probably going to have a nervous breakdown but we'll walk him through that.”
“If he can fight in the NHL he can look at a profit/loss statement,” he said. “He's going to be doing real, real-deal hard work.”
Moreover, Thornton will add pro hockey experience to a room full of West Point grads and businesspeople who, while smart, while dedicated, might not have the same nuanced understanding of the way the hockey world works. Thornton will be one to fill that void.
“I might be the first hockey player they brought in,’ Thornton said. “Ownership's only been on the team for three and a half, three years, so I think having a hockey voice in that room when going over some of the things brings something to the table as well.”
While he’s excited to dive in, Thornton acknowledges he has a lot of work to do. “I don’t even know how to make a spreadsheet. That'll probably create some anxiety as we get closer; May 30 I’m probably not going to sleep so well. But,” he added, his favorite refrain, “I'm never going to have to get punched in the face again for the rest of my life.”