The nickname “Jumbo Joe” has always seemed to suit Joe Thornton. But if the hockey world ever wants to change it up, a close observer who saw plenty of Thornton before the latter cracked the NHL has a fantastic suggestion.
“I call him ‘Quiet Thunder,’” says John Lane.
For 25 years, Lane was the voice of many junior and semi-pro teams in the St. Thomas area, including the Jr. B St. Thomas Stars. During one of his final years on the microphone, a tall local boy with tremendous vision starred for the club. As a 15-year-old competing against guys as old as 19 and 20, Thornton put up 40 goals and 64 assists for 104 points in 50 games during the one season — 1994-95 — he spent with his hometown team.
“His mind was exceptional for his age as far as seeing the ice and knowing where to go,” recalls Lane.
And while that on-ice intelligence resulted in amazing production, Lane says Thornton’s game — even back then — contained more nuance than eye-popping skill. Just as he’s done for two decades in the NHL, Thornton used his big body to protect the puck and had a gift, not necessary for scoring himself, but for finding the guy who would get the goal. “He’s not an end-to-end player,” says Lane, whose moniker for Thornton reflects that fact.
Thornton’s presence on the Stars certainly added excitement for fans. At the Jr. B level, teams are usually populated with players from around and outside the province, the United States and sometimes even Europe. To have a kid who’d grown up playing minor hockey in St. Thomas leading the Stars’ attack was something unique and it drew all kinds of people — including many youngsters — to the games. Anybody who got to meet Thornton at the rink usually left happy. “He was good with people and still is,” says Lane.
With their local hero leading the way, the Stars — who had another future NHLer, Brian Willsie from nearby Belmont, on their team — advanced to the league final, but came up just short in their quest for the Sutherland Cup. Exceptional as that year was, it’s also crazy to consider that, a decade later, St. Thomas had another precocious talent on its roster who went on to star alongside Thornton on the same NHL club.
Hailing from a tiny town called Birr less than an hour away, Logan Couture wasn’t quite the offensive force Thornton was at the same age, but he certainly showed glimpses of the promise of big things to come.
“He was unassuming,” says Lane, who still lives in St. Thomas and watched games from the stands when Couture played in 2004-05. “It was, ‘Where the hell did he come from?’ But he had an eye for the net.”
Both Thornton and Couture saw their stock rise even more once they began playing in the Ontario Hockey League. The former was drafted second over by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 1995, before becoming the top pick in the 1997 NHL draft by the Boston Bruins. Couture, meanwhile, went 12th overall to the Ottawa 67’s in 2005, then ninth overall to San Jose in 2007, less than two years after the Sharks made noise by trading for ‘Quiet Thunder.’
Two guys from the same part of the world who played for the same Jr. B program and found big-league stardom with the same club in California: It really is quite a tale.
“It sure as hell is, because it’s a big, competitive world,” says Lane.