“I’ll play ‘em both, if they want to dress 40.” Joe Thornton, asked which Eastern Conference team he’d rather face.
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It takes you out of character, this lifelong hunt for the only hockey trophy that anyone ever played for on their driveway as a kid.
So there was Joe Thornton, the furthest thing from a cocky person you’ll ever meet, offering to take on the entire rosters from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning at the same time. That’s how invincible he felt, moments after clinching his first trip to a Stanley Cup Final in a 19-season career — ironically, in a year when nobody picked the Sharks to win anything.
Across the arena, there was David Backes, a rock of a man who wears the captain’s C for the St. Louis Blues. Facing a bank of cameras and reporters, he momentarily broke down in tears. After 20 games of the consummate physical and emotional sacrifice, six weeks of a journey only these guys can truly understand, it was over.
“The stop is pretty sudden,” Backes said, before telling a story that he could barely relay, overcome by emotions.
“He’ll kill me for telling you this story,” Backes began, “but Game 5 I’m not feeling well. Steve Ott brings me something to help me feel better.”
Now Backes is paused. He can’t even speak.
“Knowing … that he’s the guy … coming out of the lineup if I can play,” he croaked. “That’s pretty selfless, and that’s the kind of guys we have in here.
“Guys blocking shots and sacrificing their bodies, it’s tough to swallow. You know the heart, the ability’s in there. We just came up short.”
Backes’ Blues were not the better team in this Western Conference Final. Thornton’s Sharks were, winning likely 12 to 14 of the 18 periods played, consummated by Wednesday’s Game 6, 5-2 Sharks victory.
San Jose now advances to the Stanley Cup Final, nine words that this hockey writer has never put together in a row before. Not in 25 Sharks seasons.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Thornton said. “The fans here have waited so long, 25 years. We’ve waited 18 years or so. It’s a great feeling.”
From the Cow Palace in Daly City, to the trade that brought Thornton from Boston, to that fecund 1991 draft that put Pat Falloon, Ray Whitney and Sandis Ozolinsh — the original ‘offenceman’ — in Sharks teal.
Through Jamie Baker, Arturs Irbe, Link Gaetz, Jeff Friesen, Miikka Kiprusoff, and of course Patrick Marleau, who has played every one of his nearly 1,600 NHL games in Sharks teal. On Wednesday, the 36-year-old flew around the SAP Center like he was a pup, notching two assists.
“Being here my whole career, being around the city, the fans, all their support over the years, it’s great to see,” Marleau said. “They deserve it just as much as we do, the support they’ve given over the years.”
The biggest difference? This team isn’t only about he and Thornton anymore. But the beauty is, all those names who came in here that allowed the Sharks to finally get over the hump? They were playing for the guys known here and Patty and Jumbo.
“Two legends,” said defenceman Brent Burns, who cements himself as a Team Canada defenceman with this post-season. “Those two are some of the best players to ever play the game. It’s huge to get them here. They’ve done pretty much everything else.
“Anybody that’s played with them sees the way that they work and what kind of teammates they are, what kind of people they are. They’re two of the best.”
From the outside, we look at a Sharks team that has spent much of the quarter century coming up short when we all felt they were ready to win. But really, for this group, this latest process began when they coughed up a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in Round 1 two springs ago.
“That was as low as you can get as a professional athlete, individually and team-wise,” said Logan Couture after a three-point night and another fabulous series. “Then last year … missing the playoffs and going through some stuff as a team. I really think everything we’ve gone through has made us a lot stronger as a group.”
“Their ability to check won them the series,” assessed Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “They were committed a little bit better than us. Their forwards really worked and put a lot of pressure us on from the backside, constant pressure, and had the energy to play that way.”
Of course, had the Blues won, it would be Backes spoken of in those terms. None of these elder statesmen have much time left in a young man’s game, which makes the emotional investment in one of these runs so dear.
When is the last time Backes cried after a hockey game?
“First time in 12 years? Eleven years? My last game in college, maybe?” he ventured, allowing himself a small smile at his own expense. “You (wear) your emotions on your sleeve. You invest so much in an 82-game season, and 20 games in the playoffs, plus some exhibition before…”
The journey continues for Thornton, Marleau and the Sharks. They’ll face the microphone plenty in the next two weeks.
So we’ll give the last word to Backes, who has been a champ for our coverage this spring, never failing to offer a thoughtful, engaging quote.
“We’re just heart broken right now.”