Search

A Bear Of A Player Five years after the Bruins made him their No. 1 pick, center Joe Thornton has finally developed into the beast everyone thought he would be

Jan. 28, 2002
Jan. 28, 2002

Table of Contents
Jan. 28, 2002

A Bear Of A Player Five years after the Bruins made him their No. 1 pick, center Joe Thornton has finally developed into the beast everyone thought he would be

Joe's world is a swell place. The ice time is free, the money is
fabulous, and his Boston Bruins are hanging around first place
in the NHL's Northeast Division. The notoriously heavy Boston
traffic melted one recent Friday as Joe Thornton sped north in
his black Lincoln Navigator on a drizzly, dishwater-gray
morning. In Joe's world, the road is always bone dry and there
are no speed traps. The car radio blared, and Thornton checked
off his blessings.

This is an article from the Jan. 28, 2002 issue Original Layout

Although he's already in his fifth NHL season, he's only 22, and
the sense of wonder that infused him as a rookie hasn't hardened
into a sense of entitlement. He's foolish enough not to wear a
seat belt and wise enough to appreciate that his family is
healthy, his car is paid for, the New England Patriots are in
the playoffs, and he doesn't have to wake up at 7 a.m. like
everyone else. He has it all, except guile. "I'm just an average
Canadian kid playing hockey," he says as he negotiates
Interstate 93. "That's not bad at all."

Thornton was running on the fumes of a 5-0 thrashing of the Los
Angeles Kings the previous night. The details of the game were
on the tip of his tongue and the tip of his nose, which was a
mottled crimson from a punch L.A.'s Kelly Buchberger had landed.
Thornton had scored a Mario Lemieux goal, going in almost
casually on a two-on-one, making a quick deke and shoving the
puck past goalie Felix Potvin; added a Wayne Gretzky assist by
setting up behind the Kings' goal and throwing the puck in the
crease for a score by Sergei Samsonov; and got his second Gordie
Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a fight) in a week by
scoring a lopsided decision over Buchberger. Instead of
upsetting Thornton, his bruised schnozz brightened his mood.
There's something cathartic about a punch in the nose. Besides,
Thornton was doing a photo shoot that afternoon for a sports
drink he endorses, and the nose would add a little realism.

"I was skating with him early this year, talking to him about
his niche," Bruins assistant coach Wayne Cashman says. "I
mentioned that when people go home after the game, they talk
about what Joe Thornton did. Did he score? Did he hit? How did
he fit in? Joe's figuring it out. He's got a taste for how good
he could be. He could be one of Those Guys."

Thornton, who was second in the NHL in scoring through Sunday
after getting 12 points in his last nine games, may already be
one of Those Guys: He can impose himself on a game in myriad
ways, the puck seems to follow him, and the other players around
the league are suddenly curious about him. Before a game on New
Year's Eve, Dallas Stars center Mike Modano, who would be
matched against Thornton, asked Boston forward Bill Guerin what
Thornton was like.

"Just a big kid," Guerin said.

"Like Spicoli?" Modano asked.

"Exactly."

Spicoli is the Sean Penn character from Fast Times at Ridgemont
High, the preternaturally relaxed surfer, a goof of the first
rank. Though his long curls have been trimmed and styled, though
he packs 220 pounds on a 6'4" frame, though he plays with a
jagged edge that twice earned him two-game suspensions last
season, it's inconceivable to look at Thornton without the first
thought being Dude! On the other hand, he wears the Bruins'
traditional spoked B and not baggies, reads books that don't
have pictures and has walked the Freedom Trail.

When Thornton showed up at the 1997 draft in the best brown suit
a man could buy in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., he looked as if he
had stepped out of an '87 high school yearbook. He was 11 days
shy of his 18th birthday when the Bruins made him the first
pick, but he was a young 17 compared with the other graduates
from the Ontario junior league. He visited Boston after the
draft and went to dinner at Cheers with Bruins assistant general
manager Mike O'Connell (now the G.M.) and O'Connell's two young
sons. The boys wanted chicken wings, grilled cheese sandwiches
and sodas. O'Connell chose steak and broccoli. When it was
Thornton's turn to order, he went with the wings and a pop.

"That was when it hit me how young he was," O'Connell says, "but
Joe's grown. This is the evolution of Joe Thornton. The first
year: I don't know if I can get to the net. The second year:
I'll try to go to the net, and I think I can get there. The
third year: I'm going to the net. The fourth year: I'm f------
going to the net, and you're not f------ stopping me. This year:
I'm not only going to the net, but I'm taking the whole team
with me."

Boston, which trailed the Philadelphia Flyers by three points
for the Eastern Conference lead through Sunday, is flourishing
under Robbie Ftorek, who in his first year with the Bruins has
buried his reputation as a systems-only coach by insisting that
his forwards be as creative as their instincts allow. Boston has
three guys up front--Guerin, Murray and Brian Rolston--with 20
or more goals; only two other teams, the Detroit Red Wings and
the St. Louis Blues, have as many as two.

Guerin remains the centripetal force in the dressing room, and
Rolston's 22 goals while playing on a checking line make him
unique, but Thornton has emerged as the Bruins' central player.
He's a rare composite. He has some of Modano's ability to dangle
without the flash, some of Lemieux's reach without the leverage,
some of Brendan Shanahan's toughness without the reputation.
Plus, his hands are soft. This is Joe's world now--"Over the
summer I told people that in two or three years, Joe would be
the best player in the game," says New York Islanders assistant
coach Jacques Laperriere, who was a Bruins assistant from
1997-98 through '00-01--and Thornton can't dismiss it with that
oversized laugh of his that shakes a room.

Ftorek is only too happy to offer written proof. After the win
over the Kings, Ftorek pulled out Thornton's folder from the
filing cabinet in his office and read aloud his answer to the
first query--"What are your goals?"--on the questionnaire Ftorek
had sent to the Bruins last summer: "To be more consistent over
a whole year" (a common response) "and to be dominating game
after game." The second half of the answer had just the right
amount of hubris for Ftorek. When the questionnaire was
mentioned to Thornton the next day, he squirmed. "The stuff
about my becoming a top player--I don't know it, but I hope it,"
Thornton says. "I'm lucky to be where I am, in a city that's
really supportive."

Boston fans have patience--it's that Red Sox training--but
Thornton was given a free pass by the standards of No. 1 draft
picks because Pat Burns, the Bruins' coach at the time, had
lowered expectations dramatically. Burns coddled Thornton
publicly and pushed him privately, torturing him with
Laperriere's infamous postpractice skating drills for the first
two seasons. If Burns had buried him any deeper as a rookie,
Thornton could have played in China. The glacial pace of his
development became a sticking point between management and
Burns, who played Thornton so sparingly that in the last five
minutes of close games, Thornton sometimes would surreptitiously
untie his skates on the bench.

"I had to let Joe earn his jersey, earn his ice time," says
Burns. "He understands now. I'd seen too many young guys with
his talent keep getting thrown out there to the point where they
got comfortable in a losing situation. I wouldn't play him when
we were down. I'd just use him if things were going well. I even
had Joe's parents growling at me a little. Harry [Sinden, the
Bruins president] knew what I was doing, but that didn't mean he
liked it."

Burns was fired eight games into 2000-01 and replaced by Mike
Keenan. Keenan was as tough on Thornton in his way as Burns had
been in his, shining a 100-watt grow light in those elfin eyes,
challenging him to be a player who made a difference. Keenan
wasn't re-signed after Boston missed the playoffs, but
Thornton's 37 goals last season are part of Keenan's legacy. "It
could have gone either way," says Samsonov, who was drafted
seven spots behind Thornton in 1997. "If Joe hadn't responded to
Mike in the right way, he might have gone backward."

Thornton has nothing but fond memories of Burns, Keenan, surfer
haircuts and everything else, because in Joe's world the sun
always shines. His big regret of late: not scoring on Joe
Thornton Bobble-head Doll Night against the Atlanta Thrashers,
because he had a celebratory bobble-head thing worked out.
Thornton wasn't as disappointed at being left off the Canadian
Olympic team as he was thrilled that Gretzky, the team's
executive director, left him a message saying he might be needed
in case of injury. "I can't believe I didn't save it; I have
Wayne Gretzky wallpaper on my room back home," Thornton says,
shaking his head and fiddling with the buttons on the steering
wheel.

The Lincoln Navigator that speeds through the Massachusetts
gloom cost him almost double the $26,600 his parents paid for
their house in St. Thomas, Ont., a town of 32,000 that witnessed
the demise of Jumbo, the Barnum and Bailey elephant that escaped
and was hit by a train as he lumbered down the tracks one sad
day in 1885. The moral is that anybody can be cut down to size,
which isn't lost on someone who might have a bad game but never
a bad day. "Like my dad says, 'It's nice being you,'" Thornton
says. "I know, eh?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY H. DIROCCO/B. BENNETT STUDIOSCOLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE

At the Head of the Class

Boston's Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton (above) rank one-two
in NHL career scoring among players drafted in 1997. Thornton,
the first guy picked that year, through Sunday was second in the
league in points this season, with 19 goals and 32 assists. Here
are the top career scorers from that draft and their point
totals in 2001-02. --David Sabino

1997 DRAFT CAREER 2001-02
PLAYER, POSITION, TEAM POSITION POINTS POINTS

Sergei Samsonov, LW, Bruins 8 258 40
Joe Thornton, C, Bruins 1 230 51
Marian Hossa, RW, Senators 12 199 37
Patrick Marleau, C, Sharks 2 187 18
Magnus Arvedson, LW, Senators 119 159 25