Inside Joe Thornton's return to Switzerland ahead of Maple Leafs debut

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Joe Thornton. (Nick Wass/AP)

Even though his club lost, Raeto Raffainer still considers himself “lucky” to have played a championship series against Joe Thornton.

The season was 2004-05, the winter the NHL went dark — but Thornton could not.

Unwilling to stay off the ice, the future Hall of Famer flew to Davos, Switzerland, where he fell in love with Alps; met his bride, Tabea Pfendsack; and led Davos to the Swiss national title, defeating Raffainer’s Zurich Lions in the final. There are worse ways to spend a lockout.

Flash forward 16 seasons, and Raffainer marvels that he is now playing an early role in prepping Thornton, 41, for a crack at another hockey crown. The biggie.

Landing the general manager gig for HC Davos, the 38-year-old Raffainer first met Thornton in the summer of 2019. The Thorntons routinely spend the NHL off-season in Switzerland. Raffainer handed Joe the keys to the facilities so he could come and go, skate and work out, as he pleases. Jagr style.

“He’s part of the family of this organization,” Raffainer explains. “For me, it's a matter of respect.”

Raffainer swung the doors and the future wide open. Both are in Thornton’s hands.

The GM told Thornton he would never call and ask him to suit up for Davos. He would never scout him or beg him, nor would he ever turn him down.

“You decide when you want to end your career in the NHL. And when you feel healthy enough to play a year or two in Europe and in Switzerland, I want that you play in Davos — but I'm not the guy that is gonna push you to do that. You can decide,” Raffainer told Thornton. “You just let me know.”

So, when Thornton asked for some game action to tune up for his 2021 Toronto Maple Leafs debut, it’s was a done deal.

During a 25-minute conversation from the other side of the Atlantic, Raffainer spoke with us about the impact Thornton is having on the city and organization of Davos, the expectations for Jumbo’s performance when he flies back to North America, and the toll COVID-19 has taken on one of the fastest pro hockey leagues on the planet.

A warning to Leafs Nation: Try not to get too excited when reading.

SPORTSNET: Because of the longstanding relationship between HC Davos and Joe Thornton, I’m guessing his formal contract for 2020-21 came together quickly.

RAETO RAFFAINER: Contract negotiations took five minutes. Because I told him, “Look, our league, we are really struggling financially at the moment — because we have no people in the stands anymore. And we cannot pay you this year.” Then he said, “Well, you can just pay me next year, or in two years, or in three years. It doesn't really matter. I just want to get ready.” So, he is playing for free this year, and we’ll give him something when he comes back next year.

SN: That’s great you have that trust. What have your conversations, if any, been like with Kyle Dubas about preparing Joe to become a Maple Leaf, in terms of how he’s used?

I haven't talked to Kyle, because I talk to Joe. I told him to take whatever he needs. And Joe said, “Don't worry about me. Worry about the team. I’ll take whatever you guys give me.” But he's obviously on the power-play. [At 5-on-5] he's been moving around a bit — first-line centre, second-line centre. We were struggling in the results. [Davos sits 2-5-1 and in last place.] We’ve been running into injuries lately, and we’ve had a couple of changes. But he's just unbelievable. So positive and full of energy for every game and every practice. For him, it really doesn't matter who he plays with and what role he’s got. He just enjoys being in the games.

SN: Are you monitoring his workload?

Like everybody else, he’s not killing himself. He’s on the ice one minute or 1:20 with the first PP. And because we have a high-paced league and a high-paced team, we try to roll four lines. The fourth line doesn't get the 10 minutes every night, but the rest play regularly. And he’s right in there. We had a slow start because we were renovating our building, and we haven't had as many home games as the others. We’ve only had two home games, and we had some postponed games because of the virus. So, we’ve only played seven games. Last week was the first week we had three games and our first back-to-back. He handled it fantastic.

SN: And he's putting up points — seven in six games. How would you evaluate his hands and his speed so far?

This was no surprise for me, because I'm a big fan of the NHL. I saw Joe's performance last year. I’ve known him as a player for almost 20 years, so he's still the best in the league anticipating the game, seeing plays, and seeing people nobody else sees. So strong on the puck. Obviously, he's not the fastest anymore, but he's the smartest player that we have. And he's still so good at passing and on the PP. That’s one part of why I’m happy he’s with us, but the other part is just his human skills. His energy. His happiness. And the way he's working out, coming in even when we give our group a day off. He's there. He’s working out all the time and skating all the time, even when the other guys are home.

SN: So, Joe signed in time for your home opener. Do fans snap up his jersey?

I prepared with him everything for that home opener. We ordered jerseys and scarves and even Corona masks with his face and the captain’s face on it. And just 10 days before, we announced everything because he told me, “I'm close to signing in the NHL.” I said, “Well, we’ll just prepare everything on that Saturday.” He said, “Hey, let's go!” So, I took the risk. I ordered Joe's shirts and filled the fan shop with them. And then he signed with the Leafs, he signed with us, and then he played 48 hours later. It was perfect timing. Our numbers in ticketing and in jerseys just exploded.

SN: How much recognition does he get in town?

Swiss people, we have well-known hockey players and soccer players, but it's not that we have this star feeling when we see somebody. We are more introverted. We’ll see someone on the street, and we’ll talk to each other like, “Oh, look, there's Roger Federer.” But it's we wouldn’t run them like other countries do to their stars. Joe has been part of this city for years. The kids love it when he goes with them on the ice. His son [River] is playing in our youth organization. Joe goes on the ice with his team as well. When his son has a tournament over the weekend somewhere, he's traveling there with him and he is helping the organizational committee hand over the medals to the kids. The whole region loves Joe Thornton because he's just a fantastic human being.

SN: Joe says he cherishes working with young teammates at this point in his career. How does he treat the younger members of your club?

We were struggling through the first couple games, and he took leadership right away. He stood up in the locker room. He’s got so much positive energy. And when he's there, he just makes everybody around him better — because it's hard to be in a negative spirit when he’s in the room. This is what I mean. This is not only about his skills in the locker room; it's about how he is as a human being. We have our captain [37-year-old Swiss legend Andreas Ambuhul], and he loves the game the same way Joe Thornton does. Their eyes are shining the same way when they’re on the ice. I just talked today with a Swiss journalist, and he was asking me, “Why is he so good [at his age]?” And I said, “Look at Roger Federer. Why should he still train on that level? Nothing else pushes him — only the love of the game.” And that's the same with Joe.

SN: As an NHL fan yourself, how much impact do you think Joe will have on the Leafs?

I studied their depth chart. They have Dennis Malgin, a guy that we love in Switzerland as well and a guy who played for our national team. That's why I'm following in Toronto very closely. Even though [Thornton’s] faceoff stats dropped a little bit last year, he’ll have an unbelievably large impact on important faceoffs. PP, we don't even have to discuss it. When the coaching staff gives him a role, he’ll be there. The question is: Do you want to play him through all the games? He needs to find a way to help the organization jump this first playoff round. They will be smart with him. They know exactly what they bought with him. The fire in his eyes and his whole body to win something is going to be huge. And he will help this organization to win, that’s for sure.

SN: I’m curious on the toll the virus has taken on your team and the Swiss National League in general. Are there worries you won’t complete the season?

We started the season with 66 per cent of seats. We were allowed to sell 66 per cent, and we had a home opener with 3,500 people in the stands. It was unbelievable emotion after eight months of no hockey in town. It was our first game with Joe, and we just smashed our opponent 9-2. There were crazy, crazy, crazy positive emotions in the building. And then the [COVID] numbers exploded. Politicians just shut down the fans, so we're down to zero. In sports, we find a way to fight through these games without having any people in the stands, but it's hard. Financially, we figured out that because of the TV contract and sponsorships, it just makes no sense to stop. So, we're gotta try to play as long and as far as we can go. We have teams in quarantine. We’ve had players that tested positive lately. We and Bern are the only organizations that haven't had a case, but it's only a matter of time until we run into problems as well. Statistically, somewhere down the road, we’ll catch it. We don't have a bubble system. Players are going home. Players are meeting friends. You cannot lock them down. But we’re gonna play, and we’re going to have our 52-game regular-season schedule. If it's not possible, we’ll cut it down and be flexible month by month.

SN: Are restaurants open?

At the moment, yes. Countries around us — Germany, Austria, France, Italy — they're shutting down everything. At the moment, we are trying to find a way so the economy can survive. Now, the numbers are flattening a little, but it’s still a very high level. For a small country like us, we have 6,000 to 8,000 new cases per day. We are a country of 8.5 million, so it's still high numbers for us.

SN: Is this Joe’s final run with Davos, or do you anticipate him playing one or two years in the Swiss League when he finally calls it quits in the NHL?

No idea. When he feels ready to play, the way he works out every day, if he stays healthy, there's no reason why he should not keep playing. A lot of people are laughing: “He’s so old! Blah, blah, blah.” But the impact he has on the ice, on the game, is still unbelievable. We're one of the fastest-skating leagues in the world, and he’s still producing one point per game. So, why shouldn't he play until he's not ready to play?

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.