Joe Thorntonvisited the Taj Mahal last summer, which would seem to rank with RichardNixon's trip to Communist China or Hannibal's taking the scenic mountain routeon the list of history's most surprising road trips. Thornton, the Sharks'No.¬†1 center, has traipsed through the NHL for a decade under the guise ofSpicoli with a slap shot, a happy-go-lucky lug whose conspicuous talent isequaled only by his sweet nature. (To this day, you cannot look at the 6'4", 237-pound Thornton, with his open face and winning grin, and not think. . . Dude!) "The fact that he was at the Taj Mahal and not at a bar calledthe Taj Mahal," says San Jose coach Ron Wilson, "that's a sign ofmaturity."
This is Wilson's little joke. At 28, and having played for only two NHL teams,Thornton has become among the most traveled if not the most worldly of hockeyplayers. He played in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, and he and girlfriendTabea Pfendsack--O.K., she managed the bar in Davos, where the team hungout--have toured extensively. He has photos to prove it. "His Christmascard last year was of him on the Great Wall of China," Sharks defensemanKyle McLaren says. "The best I could do was my kids outside myhouse."
"I'm prettyinto the Seven Wonders," Thornton says.
As the puck dropson the 2007-08 season, many in the NHL are wondering this: Will Thornton, athree-time All-Star and 2005-06 league MVP with soft hands and long-doubtedresolve, finally pick up his team by the scruff of its neck and lead it to aStanley Cup?
Thornton watchedtwo games of the 2007 Ducks-Senators final on tape while in India and, betweenwinces, noticed the physical dominance of Anaheim, the Western Conference team.So, why shouldn't it be San Jose's turn in 2008? "We have a little moreexperience from the Edmonton and Detroit series," he said of second-roundmeltdowns in the past two seasons. "We realize we had some of those gamesin hand, but couldn't find a way to finish them. There are a lot of pieceshere, a lot of guys going through their prime years. Realistically, we've got ashot at the Cup."
October 7, 2007
The Sharks, infact, have an excellent shot. With Thornton taking the mantle of leadershipthat has been assigned to him since his teenage years with the Bruins, San Joseis SI's choice to win it all.
If wisdom is themarriage of experience and knowledge, as San Jose general manager Doug Wilsonsuggests, then the Sharks have been spiritually enlightened up the yin andyang.
Their six-gameloss to the Red Wings last spring could have, maybe should have, been a SanJose sweep. In the two matches they frittered away, the Sharks had 2-0 leads.In Game¬†2 in Detroit, in which Thornton had a goal and an assist in thefirst five minutes, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff coughed up the puck like ahair ball on a third-period power play, leading to a short-handed goal thattied the score. Even more egregious, in the final minute of Game¬†4 withthe Sharks on the verge of taking a three-games-to-one lead in the series,captain Patrick Marleau got caught cheating on the offensive side of the puckin the neutral zone, permitting Detroit to score with 33.1¬†seconds left inregulation.
"Our team hasshot itself in the foot so many times," McLaren says. "One mistaketends to trouble us more than it should. One mistake last year [in Game¬†4]cost us a round. Or two."
The best passingcenter west of Sidney Crosby wasn't on the ice at that moment, but Thorntonwill not take a pass on the responsibility, even if he thought he had acreditable playoffs. He still has not defined himself as a clutch player, butcompared with his history as a playoff wallflower, the 2007 postseason was avirtual debutante ball. Thornton, who tied a team playoff record with assistsin seven straight games, averaged a point per match after having totaled onlyeight goals and 19 assists in his previous 46 playoff games. While ribs werethe most noteworthy part of his anatomy in his checkered playoffpast--soldiering on despite cartilage damage, Thornton went pointless in 2004with Boston, which fell in seven games to Montreal in the first round--lastspring it was his spine. "You saw it in Game¬†3 against Detroit,"Sharks winger Mike Grier says. "We had a great first period, a bad secondperiod. The look in Joe's eyes after that period kind of kept guys going. Hewasn't happy. Then he went out in the third period and dominated."
There are otherreasons to believe that Thornton--who would play only 23 more games for theBruins after those '04 playoffs before being traded in what will go down amongthe top front-office gaffes in Boston sports history--is ready to propel histeam deep into the postseason. "I sensed a little different Joe in theplayoffs last year, and more important, Joe did too," Ron Wilson says."There was a fire and a hunger. Maybe in the past he'd more readily accepta poor performance from a teammate as long as he did well himself. Now you sawa little more urgency. This is a process you see for a lot of players who areexposed to that kind of scrutiny, like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic. Even inbasketball, Michael Jordan--and I'm not saying [Joe is] Michael Jordan--neededsix years or so. Jordan won, not because he was a better player but because heput pressure on teammates to be better. This is not about points but aboutdoing something that most helps the team."
For Thornton, thiswill be about expanding his horizons and taking shots. The Great Wall is swell,but he must also leave the comforts of home along the left half-wall on thepower play and venture to exotic locales like the front of the net. And he'llneed to shoot more. Of the NHL's top 14 point scorers last season, Thorntontook the fewest shots--averaging 2.6 a game. While his 114 points were secondonly to Crosby's 120, Thornton's 22 goals tied for 87th in the league. OneWestern Conference scout says the key to stopping the Sharks is not to gearcheckers and defensemen to stop Thornton but instead to stifle his linemates;with Thornton's pass-first mentality, he often throws the puck into traffic andsquanders scoring opportunities.
Ron Wilson saysThornton had a better season in 2006-07 than he did in '05-06, when he led theNHL in scoring--even though Thornton was bothered all last season by brokentoes on his right foot. "Broken toe, broken finger, strep throat . . .didn't miss a day of practice," Doug Wilson says. "I went to ourtrainers and asked what was going on, and they said he simply refused to take aday off."
Thornton is at acrossroads in his NHL journey: He can dominate or defer, fly the plane orclamber into a middle seat and come along on the ride, the accidental star.(Quick story: On his six-hour flight to the All-Star Game in Los Angeles in2002, the hulking Thornton was assigned a middle seat in coach. Nevercomplained. The slightly built guy on the aisle explained he was tooclaustrophobic to switch seats. "No problem," said Thornton.) Given theSharks' surfeit of scoring forwards, promising young defensemen, and the team'svow to pay more attention to detail, Thornton's itinerary, if not the paraderoute, has been mapped out.
Thornton has alsopenciled in his plans for next summer. He and Pfendsack will visit Thailand andmake a stop at Mount Everest. Of course, if Thornton and the Sharks reach theNHL summit, the trip likely will be postponed. As Thornton, who spends hisoff-seasons in Ontario, says, "The best vacation would be just hangingaround and partying with the Cup."
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"I SENSED A DIFFERENT JOE IN THE PLAYOFFS LASTYEAR, AND MORE IMPORTANT,JOE DID TOO," SAYS RON WILSON. "YOU SAW ALITTLE MORE URGENCY."
Some scouts believe that the way to contain the powerful but pass-happyThornton is to shut down his linemates.
Thornton's resolve (and his 11 points in 11 games) inspired teammates in lastspring's postseason.