When faced with deciding where his life and career would take him next, Joe Thornton didn’t do it alone. He sought advice and insight from those he knew best and those who knew what it was like to leave a city they’d called home for the majority of their professional lives.
Few people check both those boxes better than Patrick Marleau. Back in the 1997 NHL Draft, the pair were selected first and second overall by the Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks, respectively, and went on to spend more than a decade’s worth of their most productive playing years as teammates on the Sharks.
But for the choice Thornton faced this month, about whether to leave the Bay Area and join the Toronto Maple Leafs or not, it was Marleau’s first-hand experiences of what it’s like to sign a late-career deal north of the border that had a special resonance.
“Loved it, he loved it,” Thornton said during a Monday appearance on Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid, when asked what Marleau told him about his experiences in Toronto. “He said it’s a first class organization, they treat the players great — anything you need, they really look after players. I almost went with him a couple years ago [to Toronto] and it just didn’t transpire. But he had nothing but great words to say about the whole Leaf organization.”
Though that hypothetical team-up never came to be in 2017 and Marleau himself has re-located twice in the intervening years, the impression Toronto left on him remained — both as an organization, and on the ice.
“[When] I talked to Patty Marleau, Patty Marleau said [it’s a] ‘Great group of young players, they’re willing to work, willing to listen,'” Thornton said, when considering the hockey situation he would be walking into and what his role might be. “Whatever they need, I’ll be there for them.”
But, at 41 years old and with a Stanley Cup-sized vacancy left in his Hall of Fame resume, the decision to don the white and blue jersey was about more than being a mentor, or landing with a respected organization.
The flame still burns. And having grown up in southern Ontario, a mere highway drive away from the mecca of Maple Leafs fandom, it’s not at all lost on Thornton what delivering a Cup to Toronto would mean.
“When you’re a young boy, playing in street hockey, it’s the Stanley Cup, you know? That’s why you play the game,” Thornton said. “It’s the little kid in me that I still have at the age of 41. It’s a big, magical thing that I want to bring to Leaf Nation now.”