Joe Thornton Came Up Short in Stanley Cup Pursuit and Now His Hockey Future Is Uncertain

Joe Thornton came close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final against his old team, but San Jose fell short to St. Louis in the Western Conference Final. Almost 40, will Thornton keep pursuing an elusive championship?
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Twenty-two years ago, less than a day after the 1997 NHL draft, real estate developer Tom Hynes answered the telephone at his Boston-area house and heard a familiarly graveled voice on the other line.

“Do you know why I’m calling?” longtime Bruins executive Harry Sinden asked.

“I have an idea,” Hynes recalls replying, “but paint the picture.”

As Sinden explained, the Bruins had just spent the first-overall pick on a 17-year-old string bean from London, Ont., whose parents had expressed a preference for him to live with a host family in Boston during his rookie season. And since Hynes and his wife Nicole had enjoyed their two previous experiences billeting new players for the team (Rob Cimetta and Stephane Quintal), wondered Sinden, how did they feel about having Joe Thornton too?

It was a perfect fit. Thornton spent the next four years with the Hynes family in Brookline, gobbling down homemade grilled chicken and pasta, curling at the country club across the street, sailing a skiff from their place on Cape Cod. “We had so much fun,” Hynes says. Like most teens Thornton eventually moved out—first to another place in Boston, then later to San Jose as the centerpiece of a famously lopsided November 2005 trade. But the bond has lasted to this day, through weddings and summer vacations, birthday parties and 14 more hockey seasons.

That is why, reached at his Boston office on Wednesday morning, Hynes starts with a chuckle before saying, simply and somberly, “Too bad.”

He had been watching Game 6 of the Western Conference Final from the same living room Thornton once shared, accompanied by a kid’s size No. 19 Sharks jersey that his six-year-old grandson was wearing before going to bed the night before. He'd been sitting on the couch, behind which a bookshelf of photos featured one of Thornton with the rest of the family from his first NHL season. Of course, Hynes had been hoping that San Jose might beat St. Louis and force Game 7, keeping alive the dream scenario of Thornton coming back to compete for his first Stanley Cup against his former team. “Terribly disappointed,” Hynes says. “It really hurts.”

For that, Hynes can thank the Blues. Down three difference-makers due to injury—captain Joe Pavelski, defenseman Erik Karlsson and winger Tomas Hertl—the Sharks allowed a pair of power play goals early and ultimately fell at Enterprise Center, 5–1, trudging off the ice as St. Louis celebrated its first Cup final berth since 1970. An offseason of decisions now looms for GM Doug Wilson, between four soon-to-be restricted free agents and seven more slated to hit the open market. The latter crop includes Pavelski, Karlsson and recent trade rental Gustav Nyquist, but no decision will be more intriguing than the future of Thornton.

Six weeks away from his 40th birthday, the future Hall-of-Famer is finally entering a summer on sturdy legs, having spent the previous two recovering from a series of knee surgeries that would’ve surely retired lesser beasts. He skated 73 games during the regular season and then 19 more in the playoffs, recast as a third-line center alongside handpicked wingers Marcus Sorensen and Barclay Goodrow. The conference finals were a mixed bag, between getting undressed by Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo in Game 2, rebounding with two goals in Game 3, and finishing pointless in Games 4–6.

But while St. Louis drew fuel from “Gloria,” the Sharks were united around a different yet equally spirited (and short) rallying cry: Jumbo.

“Like all the players in that room, as coaches, we’re disappointed for not helping him get there,” coach Pete DeBeor said in St. Louis, sounding an awful lot like Hynes. “Because he gives you everything he’s got, and should be there. It’s hard not to feel responsibility as one of the people around him for not helping him get where he belongs. He belongs playing for a Stanley Cup, and that’s a disappointing part.”

San Jose will reload for another run, as the ultra-competitive Wilson always does. Whether Thornton remains in the plans is a different matter—recall Patrick Marleau’s departure two years ago—though his recent re-upping track of consecutive one-year deals could be justified at a reasonable price. Besides, it’s hard to imagine him giving up the Stanley Cup chase just yet, even after 1,745 regular-season and playoff games. “Whenever we talk, he’s like, ‘Yeah I’ll play until 45,’” says cousin Scott Thornton, who was on the Sharks when Joe arrived in ‘05–06. “Honest to god, I think he’ll be like Jagr. He’ll just keep going as long as he possibly can go.”

Some of this is due to the only hardware that Thornton—an IIHF world champion, Olympic gold medalist, World Cup gold medalist and Hart Trophy winner—lacks. But there is a better explanation. “He loves the game, loves the locker room, loves the life in general,” Scott says. This joy was evident from the moment that Thornton joined the Bruins and neighbors started knocking on Hynes’s door, concerned about the safety of the 6'4" blonde young man whipping around the Brookline streets on rollerblades. And certainly it burns just as bright today; remember how he reacted in February upon notching his first hat trick since 2010?

Thornton revealed little after Game 6 when asked whether he had contemplated the future. “No, no,” he said, looking down and shaking his head. “Nope.” It would’ve been a delicious title bout between San Jose and Boston regardless, if not for the Thornton storyline alone. (Granted, a rematch of the airborne Bobby Orr series isn’t a bad consolation prize.) Instead we are left to speculate about a career that would enter its fourth decade next season. But there is still plenty of room to appreciate how Thornton has persisted in the first place.

“I hope he plays another year,” Hynes says. “He might be the best third-line center in the history of the NHL.”