SAN JOSE, Calif. – Henrik Sedin has a favourite player and he isn’t his brother Danny. He isn’t Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid nor any of the many Swedes in the National Hockey League. He’s Joe Thornton.
Since the summer after their 1999 draft by the Vancouver Canucks when Henrik and Daniel Sedin travelled from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden to attend a conditioning camp in Penticton organized by their agents, Hank has admired Thornton. The centre from St. Thomas, Ont., had been drafted two years earlier by the Boston Bruins and was also at the Okanagan camp.
“Joe was there because he had the same agent,” Henrik, 37, said before the Canucks lost 5-0 to the Sharks on Saturday. “He was the guy we saw first. And ever since, I’ve followed him throughout his career because we play the same way. I mean, he’s bigger and stronger, but he likes to pass. I’ve always loved him. He has always been my favourite player.”
This partiality has withstood the 12 years that Thornton has played for the Sharks after he was traded by the Bruins into the same conference as the Sedins in 2005.
For the first eight of those years, the Canucks and Sharks won more games than any other team in the NHL’s Western Conference. They became fierce Pacific Division rivals. The Sharks, like all teams, did everything they could to physically abuse and in any way stop the Sedins. Thornton, who is from St. Thomas, Ont., contributed to this cause.
During the 2011 Western Conference final, when the Canucks beat the Sharks in five games to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Thornton actually cuffed Henrik while the captains were standing in front of the referee listening to the explanation of a penalty call. Just to make sure no one thought it was an accident, Thornton did it again.
So, it’s a little unexpected to hear that through all these years, Thornton was Sedin’s favourite player. And it’s surprising to learn that Thornton has always liked and admired the Sedins.
“I remember the twins coming out to that camp,” Thornton, 38, says of Penticton. “They were just drafted No. 2 and No. 3 at the time, but as 18-year-olds, you could just see their hockey sense was off the charts. If they wanted to, they could keep the puck all day. And they’re still doing it today, 20 years later. They play a different style that, really, the game hasn’t seen. I don’t think there are too many other players who play that style. For me, it’s really fun to watch.
“I’ve always admired the way they play. And they play hard. They don’t shy away in the corners. As far as them being in the league together, they’re one of the best one-two combos I’ve seen in the last 20 years, to be honest with you.”
Look beyond nationalities and the fierce intensity of their NHL games and it’s easy to understand the mutual admiration between Sedin and Thornton.
They are two of the best playmakers of their generation. Since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Thornton leads all players with 754 assists. Henrik is second with 685. (Sidney Crosby is third at 653).
Just as there is a brotherhood of goalies and a union of enforcers, there is a kind of fraternity of passers in the NHL.
“Yeah, you do watch those guys,” Thornton said. “I watch less now. But I Iike watching (Nicklas) Backstrom, I like watching the Sedins. It’s a craft that sometimes gets overlooked because you’re not a goal-scorer. You set up that stuff. But I look at old tapes of Adam Oates, guys like Craig Janney. For me, it’s an art and a great art to be a part of.”
“I think he’s the best, for sure,” Danny Sedin said of Thornton’s place among the great playmakers. “I didn’t get the chance to watch Gretzky and those guys. But from what I’ve seen, he’s No. 1, absolutely. Hank might be a little bit angry, but you’ve got to admire what Joe’s done.”
There is something else Thornton and Henrik have in common. They have long been under-appreciated for what they’ve accomplished. Both have won an NHL scoring title and Hart Trophy. Both have won Olympic and world championship gold medals.
But neither has a Stanley Cup. The Canucks lost in seven games to the Bruins in 2011, while Thornton’s Sharks were beaten in six games by Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016. Sedin and Thornton play on the West Coast, so few people in the east actually see their games. And their style of play, patient, measured, never frantic, can make them look like they’re not trying as hard as the guys who are all butt-and-elbows when they dart around the ice and crash the net.
The great assisters are now in the final acts of their career. Thornton still logs 17:39 a night for the Sharks and has eight assists and 10 points in 15 games this season for the Sharks. Henrik is averaging 14:08 for the Canucks but has just four assists and five points in 17 games.
Henrik was the better of the two in Saturday’s game, but neither had a point as the Sharks won by five despite being outplayed.
They remember that altercation in front of the referee six years ago.
“I was just having fun,” Thornton smiled. “You know what? (The Sedins) are dirtier than you think. I’m telling you. They’ll stick you. They’re ultra-competitive, and that’s another thing I’ve liked about the way they play. Every time they’re on the ice, they want to score a goal. That’s pretty cool.”
“We’ve had some heated battles for sure,” Henrik said. “But we had good teams, they had good teams. That (combativeness) comes with it.”
Can they at least talk on the ice, passer to passer, two great rivals near the end of their careers?
“In the past, it was just screaming back and forth,” Henrik said. “It’s now maybe a little more respect.”