Last spring in Vancouver, as young Logan Couture came of age in the National Hockey League playoffs, the storyline going around was that the San Jose Sharks had become “his team.” The extrapolation, of course, was that Joe Thornton couldn’t bring a Stanley Cup to San Jose, so it now was Couture’s time to take the driver’s seat, etc., etc.
Try that angle out on most aging superstars, and they will line it back at you like an Edwin Encarnacion shot through the box. Not Thornton, though. “This is his team, and we’re all happy for him,” Thornton said that day
Thornton: (winks): “Well, it’s pretty close.”
It was, in hindsight, the ultimate bit of leadership by a veteran who could see a young player's game on the rise. If Thornton answered that question any other way it might have installed a seed of doubt between Couture’s 24-year-old ears, which wouldn't help the team. So the Sharks captain went with it, in the short-term, knowing that what people think outside the San Jose Sharks dressing room doesn’t matter a lick anyhow.
Seven months later, that storyline has petered out. “He is our leader,” says “Little” Joe Pavelski, aptly nicknamed as the third-line centre behind six-foot-four “Jumbo” Joe. "He's our best player.” Inside the room, the two-time Olympian acts like it. “He wants the puck,” Pavelski says. “And when you play on his line, he expects you to score.”
Joe Thornton, first overall pick and most productive player from the 1997 NHL draft, has no ego. You want to think he’s the leader of this team? Fine. You want someone else to be the leader? Whatever. Thornton greets a visiting hockey writer with his usual joviality, but as predictable is his knack for never letting anyone in. That he was at the centre of that controversial quote in Vancouver last month is ironic, because he’s as well met and accessible as any star player in the game today, and would never utter a sentence like that in an actual interview.
That incident did not scare him off from the press, however, nor have all the years of abuse by Bruins fans, or annual the “Thornton Can’t Get Sharks Over The Top” headlines. He just keeps on sitting down with hockey writers, sharing a few laughs and telling us virtually nothing about himself. “I don’t think media necessarily knows half the guys in the league,” he says. “It’s only in this locker room that it really matters. It’s such a sacred place, you don’t need to share it with everyone. Nobody outside really needs to know what’s going on inside.”
Does he ever put his foot down in here?
“Of course,” he admits. “I’ve been here for eight years. Of course, there’s gonna be screaming and yelling. Almost fights, things like that. That’s why it’s such a great brotherhood.”
For Thornton, that brotherhood extends well beyond the Sharks organization. You want to wear a sandwich board that blares, “I Don’t Know Jack About Hockey?” Go tell an NHL player that Thornton is the reason why the Sharks have not won a Stanley Cup. “Winning is never about one guy,” says Mike Cammalleri, who puts Thornton in the same league as Pavel Datsyuk and Sidney Crosby when it comes to dictating the pace of a game. Lee Stempniak wonders aloud if there's another guy in the NHL who is more dangerous on his backhand than his forehand or, at least, Thornton’s equal.
He is that rare 1,000-game, 1,000-point player, two good weeks away from a point-per-game career (1,135 points in 1,142 games, including 802 assists, 30th all time). Only two active players have more points than Thornton—Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne—and his 15 assists this season are second only to Henrik Sedin, though his Sharks have played three fewer games than the Canucks. How worried are teams of Thornton’s legendary set-up game? Well, when’s the last time you saw a piece of art like the Buffalo Sabres’ Three-Man Bobsled Team on display as it was last week in San Jose? Three Sabres lined up behind Thornton chasing him, forgetting all about the Sharks they were leaving completely unmarked in front of the net.
“The true leaders that I’ve been around,” says San Jose defenceman Dan Boyle, “they don’t have to say a word. Their leadership shows when they go out on the ice and they take over a game.” And bringing a Cup to San Jose? “It’s not on him,” Boyle says. “It’s on everyone in the locker room. We hear it all the time, about the window closing on me, Patty (Marleau) and Joe. Kinda get annoyed with it. The media sometimes latch on to (a narrative).”
Hockey in general loves its labels. In Thornton's case, it's the big, slower-moving player who gets the “lazy” tag. Or the, “he-doesn’t-want-it-bad-enough” label. It goes back to Frank Mahovlich, runs through Tim Kerr and Dave Andreychuk, and settles on the plate next to Dustin Penner’s pancakes. “The debate that exists out there is because of his personality,” says San Jose coach Todd McLellan, who was an assistant in Detroit, where true leadership was everywhere. He compares the Thornton we never see to Steve Yzerman in Detroit, whose intensity was more palpable to those on the outside. “Every now and then the door shuts, and Jumbo is able to bring things to order.”
Then the door opens and Jumbo is smiling again, talking about the weather. Nothing to see here, folks. Just two or three playoff rounds every year for nearly a decade, like clockwork, and a point per game for 15-plus seasons.
Move along now.