Little Sammy came from Moscow, Big Joe from London, Ont., and
when they arrived in Boston together last year, they continued
to reside on opposite ends of the earth. Sergei Samsonov and Joe
Thornton were both 18 years old and had been selected by the
Bruins in the first round of the 1997 draft. As their teammates
and coaches say, the similarities ended there.
"Sammy is like an old-time Russian hockey player: intense,
driven, a purpose to everything he does," says 29-year-old
veteran left wing Ted Donato. "Joe's a great kid, but he's more
of a traditional 19-year-old."
Thornton has long blond hair, an easy smile and wears a pro
wrestling T-shirt after every practice. He lists Goldberg as the
one person he would like to meet and Dumb and Dumber as his
favorite movie. He weighs 220 pounds and stands 6'4", which may
explain why his head often seems to be in the clouds. "Look at
him," a teammate says, smiling and nodding across the locker
room toward Thornton. "He's our Spicoli."
Samsonov is their little Rutger Hauer. Samsonov has the cool,
hard look of a soldier and the intensity of a man who is playing
to pay the mortgage. He's 5'8" and 184 pounds, and his
size-seven feet are firmly on the ground. He sits down to a
lunch of pasta and cranberry juice--no soda, no dessert--and is
asked when his birthday is. "I'm not sure," he says, no trace of
a smile. "Soon."
November 16, 1998
He is reminded that he turns 20 the next day and is asked how he
will celebrate. "I will be in Montreal," he says. "I guess I'll
be getting ready to play a game."
The Bruins recently returned to Boston after two weeks on the
road, and Thornton, like most of the players, had big plans for
his first Sunday back home: sleep late, relax, watch football.
Samsonov had other ideas. "I have many bills to pay," he said,
shaking his head. Says Bruins assistant general manager Mike
O'Connell, "Most guys that age are thinking about Nintendo and
occasionally trying to act mature. With Sammy it's no act. For
his age, he's as mature as any player I've ever met."
After a disappointing first half for both players last season,
Samsonov and Thornton went their separate ways during the
Olympic break. Joe traveled to St. Thomas, Ont., to hang out
with his buddies, while Sergei stayed in Boston and toured
prospective prep schools with his 14-year-old brother, Yuri, who
lives with him, along with their parents, Viktor and Tatiana.
When the players returned to work after the 19-day hiatus,
Samsonov and Thornton continued to go in opposite directions.
Thornton resumed his rookie-year struggles; Samsonov became a
star. "Joe was still a kid, still kind of giddy about the whole
thing," says Bruins general manager Harry Sinden. "Sergei was
all business. I don't think he was ever giddy about anything."
Samsonov and Thornton, the Russian Rocket and the Canadian
rocker, are an odd and intriguing pair who promise to deliver
excitement to Boston fans, though on different schedules.
Thornton is a center with the size, speed and boundless
potential that left the Bruins no choice but to use the No. 1
overall draft pick on him in 1997. Thornton's rookie season was
a long and tedious learning process. His talent appeared in
tantalizing flashes, but in 55 games he had only three goals and
four assists. "Someone asked me, 'When is Thornton going to be
Cam Neely?'" says Boston coach Pat Burns, who took over behind
the Bruins bench before last season. "I said, 'Oh, how about
2005? He'll be 26. He'll be in his prime. He'll be a hell of a
player. That's how long it takes some guys.'"
Says O'Connell, "We were thinking more like 2000."
There will be no such wait for Samsonov, the Bruins' second
pick, No. 8 overall, in 1997. After emigrating from Russia in
'96, Samsonov, a left wing, played one year in the International
Hockey League, winning the rookie of the year award and leading
the Detroit Vipers to the championship. Rick Dudley, the Ottawa
Senators general manager who ran the Vipers then, says Samsonov,
even at 17 and in a new country, showed remarkable poise. "It
would have been overwhelming for most people, being that young
and not understanding the language and playing against guys 25
or 30 years old," says Dudley, "but he's not a normal human
being. He's special."
While Samsonov's dazzling skill was obvious from the first day
of the Bruins' rookie camp--"He makes moves the rest of us dream
about," says Donato--he scored just 11 points in his first 37
games. "He didn't want to shoot at first," says Boston's star
defenseman Ray Bourque, who is playing in his 20th NHL season.
"He wanted to bring it toward the net and make his moves. He had
to adjust and shoot more."
He also had to learn a new language and settle his family in a
new land. Last season much of Sergei's free time was spent
helping his mother, father and brother adjust to the U.S. With
Yuri now boarding at a nearby private school, Sergei is proud
and a little envious of his brother. "He's having a great time,"
he says. Sergei's next order of business: Get Mom and Dad out of
Without friends or jobs, Viktor and Tatiana spend most of their
time waiting for Sergei's next game. When he was sick and unable
to practice one day last season, he didn't have to get out of
bed to call the Bruins' trainer--Viktor drove to the rink and
delivered the message. Sergei is hesitant about getting a
satellite dish that would pull in Russian-language stations
because he worries that his parents would never leave the couch.
"It's tough because they don't have work visas, and they don't
really know the language," Sergei says.
For years, life in the Samsonovs' home revolved around Sergei's
sport. You think hockey parents are nuts in North America?
Viktor, an electrician, quit his job in Moscow so he could
dedicate himself to his son's promising hockey career. He drove
Sergei to the rink each day and drove a cab at night to pay the
bills. "He pushed me, and he's a big reason I am here today,"
Sergei says of Viktor. "My parents did a lot for me. I just wish
they would get out and enjoy things in this country."
When asked what he likes best about living and playing in the
States, Sergei, a former Red Army team star, says, "The freedom.
In Russia, we had to stay on the army bases." His least favorite
thing? "I have no complaints," he says. "Why should I complain?
I'm playing in the best league in the world."
Samsonov is already one of the best players in the world. After
his slow start last season, he was placed on a line with Dmitri
Khristich and Jason Allison, and he responded with 38 points in
the Bruins' last 50 games. At week's end Samsonov had five goals
and eight assists this season. Says Allison, who was ninth in
the NHL in scoring in 1997-98, "Sammy can skate and handle the
puck better than anyone." Anyone on the team? "Anyone in the
league," says Allison.
Samsonov was voted the NHL's top rookie, and he led the Bruins
back into the playoffs. After having had the worst record
(26-47-9) in the league in 1996-97, Boston finished second in
the Northeast Division last season with 91 points before falling
to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs.
"I was working in TV in Canada a couple of years ago when I saw
Samsonov in an IHL playoff game," says Burns. "He scored four
goals and stood out. I knew he could adapt to the NHL because of
his speed, but I didn't realize he had this kind of maturity."
Does he remind you of anyone?
"Ray," says Burns.
Shortly after Samsonov moved to Boston, Bourque asked him if he
wanted a lift to the FleetCenter. Samsonov accepted, and he
began riding with Bourque on game nights. He also began to watch
every move Bourque made. "I see him working hard as hell in
practice after 20 years in this league, and I know I have to do
the same," says Samsonov.
Bourque, 37 and a 16-time All-Star, says he helped Samsonov open
an account at a bank and "showed him where the malls are." He
saw shades of himself in the tunnel-visioned teenager. "Same
attitude," says Bourque. "No matter how good a game he has, it's
not good enough. He shows up at practice the next day like he's
got something to prove."
So what did they talk about on the way to the rink? Music?
Sports? The stock market? Women? "The game," says Bourque, "if
we talked at all."
From the day the young twosome arrived in Boston, Thornton has
talked enough for both of them. Gregarious and carefree, he
looks even less refined when held to the standard set by
Samsonov. Nine months younger than Samsonov, Thornton came to
the NHL straight from his junior team in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.,
which would have been like Ryan Leaf jumping to the NFL from his
high school team in Montana. "Joe was so good in juniors he
didn't have to work at it," says Sinden. "When he got here, he
didn't understand that when he has the puck, someone really
wants to take it from him."
Are the Bruins disappointed in him? "No, but we're going to be
if he doesn't pick up his intensity," says Sinden. "He has to
understand: This is serious business. We're not in this for fun."
That isn't an easy concept to teach a teenager who's making
$925,000 a year, the same as Samsonov, to play hockey. "Why
shouldn't I be enjoying life?" says Thornton, who had five
points in 15 games through Sunday. "I'm living a dream." Which
makes it tough to wake up at times. Some of Thornton's teammates
chuckled when he recently overslept and missed a rare
opportunity to play The Country Club, site of next year's Ryder
Cup. When Hooters made its debut in Boston last year, Thornton
was seen waiting in line on opening night--not the best
publicity for someone whose dedication to the game was already
in question. "The amazing thing wasn't that he was going to a
bar," says a member of the Boston organization, "but that he was
waiting in line. He could have told them who he was and gotten
right in. But that's Joe. He never big-times anyone or expects
to be treated special."
Thornton lives outside Boston with a family that has taken in
young Bruins players in the past. Nicole Hynes, his surrogate
mother, calls Thornton "the least pretentious person I've ever
met." She regularly helps Thornton answer his fan mail, a chore,
incidentally, that Samsonov says is too time-consuming for him.
As for special occasions, Hynes says Thornton never forgets her
children's birthdays, let alone his own. "Since I've known him,"
she says, "he's made one extravagant purchase--he bought his
mother a red Corvette."
The bright side for the Bruins is that they have the perfect
hockey player on their hands: big, fast, skilled, driven,
dedicated, focused and full of personality. Unfortunately, he
comes in two packages. The Bruins know there's nothing they can
do about Little Sammy's size, but they wouldn't mind instilling
some soldier in Big Joe. "We expected him to be giddy," Sinden
says of Thornton, "but we don't expect him to stay giddy forever."
TWO FOR THE AGES?
It's rare for a team to have a pair of first-round draft picks
from the same year become stars, and only time will tell if Joe
Thornton will join Sergei Samsonov as a top player. Here are
five duos selected in the same year by the same team who became
YEAR TEAM PLAYERS POS. DRAFT NUMBER
1982 Buffalo Sabres *Phil Housley D 6
*Dave Andreychuk LW 16
Housley is the highest-scoring U.S.-born defenseman in history,
with 1,031 points at week's end; Andreychuk had scored 522 goals.
1979 Boston Bruins *Ray Bourque D 8
Brad McCrimmon D 15
Bourque, a sure Hall of Famer, is one of only two defensemen to
get 1,000 or more assists; McCrimmon played 18 solid seasons and
was an All-Star in 1988.
1974 Montreal Canadiens Doug Risebrough C 7
Mario Tremblay RW 12
They were keys to Montreal's four straight Cups (1976-79).
Risebrough was a tough and talented defensive player; Tremblay
had 30 or more goals four times.
1970 Boston Bruins Reggie Leach RW 3
Rick MacLeish C 4
They combined for 730 goals (most of them as members of the
Philadelphia Flyers), but had only nine for the Bruins, all by
1966 New York Rangers Brad Park D 2
Don Luce C 14
Park, a Hall of Famer, finished second in the Norris Trophy
voting six times; Luce played 13 seasons, mostly for Buffalo,
scoring 225 goals.
"Joe was still a kid," said Sinden. "Sergei was all business. I
don't think he was ever giddy about anything."