SUNRISE, Fla. — Joe Thornton’s career may be over. Or not.
The veteran centreman, who just completed his 24th season in the NHL and first with the Florida Panthers, said Wednesday that he has not decided whether to retire or continue playing.
“My wife was kind of asking me last night,” Thornton said. “And really, I have no plans. It’s kind of exciting that way. I came here to win a championship and we fell short of that. But I think the Florida Panthers are going to be good for a long time. It’s exciting around here now.”
The question is whether he’ll be part of that excitement going forward.
Thornton turns 43 on July 2. He was the second-oldest skater to appear in a game this season; New York Islanders defenceman Zdeno Chara turned 45 in March, and like Thornton just completed his 24th season in the league.
They were two of four players in the 40s who got into games this season. Buffalo Sabres goalie Craig Anderson was a month shy of turning 41 when he made his final appearance of the season. Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith turned 40 in March.
“I’ve been privileged to play this game for a long time,” Thornton said. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
Longtime San Jose Sharks running mate Patrick Marleau announced his retirement earlier this month after playing 23 seasons in the NHL. Marleau broke Gordie Howe’s games played record and retired having played 1,779 in the regular season during his career.
Thornton has played 1,714 games — sixth most in regular-season history — with San Jose, Boston, Toronto and now the Panthers. He recently joked he would let Marleau keep his place in the history books.
Thornton appeared in 34 games with the Panthers this season, scoring five goals and adding five assists.
“Everybody loves to be around him,” Panthers forward Anton Lundell said. “He’s a funny guy and he loves to work. You see how much he cares about the sport, how much he loves to play, and the biggest thing is how much he loves to be around the boys. He doesn’t really like to take any days off.”
For perspective, Lundell was born Oct. 3, 2001. One day later, Thornton started his fifth NHL season.
Thornton picked the Panthers last summer because he felt coming to Florida was his best hope to finally win what would be his first Stanley Cup championship. The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy, set team records for goals, wins and points and captured a playoff series for the first time since 1996 — but got swept out of the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Kind of wish I’d played with him,” said Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette, who played 16 NHL seasons before turning his attention to coaching. “But I got to coach him, and that was a great experience.”
Thornton played in only one playoff game with the Panthers, that being the series finale against the Lightning. He said he didn’t go through the traditional handshakes at the end of that game thinking it could be his final moments of his life as an active player.
“I never think ‘what-ifs,’ to be honest with you,” Thornton said. “I just try to live in the moment and go from there.”
But the Panthers will go into next season believing they are a contender again, and if he decides to go for a 25th season that could certainly appeal to Thornton.
“I think the world of Joe Thornton,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said.
Thornton is 12th in regular-season history with 1,539 points. Most of the top 33 scorers in NHL history have already been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame; the only ones who aren’t yet in are Thornton, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, and that’s because none of those four players are yet eligible.