Joe Thornton's path to the Stanley Cup finals steered by pivotal moments

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Monday, June 6, 2016

SAN JOSE, Calif. --Joe Thornton is playing like a man possessed.

This is the closest the 36-year-old forward has been to hoisting the Stanley Cup. Game 3 was his best performance yet in the finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and theSan Jose Sharkswill attempt to tie this series in Game 4 on Monday (8 ET) at SAP Center.

"He has played very well," one Eastern Conference coach said in a text message. "Possessing the puck and creating separation with his skill and vision for everyone around him. Possession, utilizing his size to protect the puck. Looks like he has embraced the challenge."

Thornton understands that time is running out to win. As he fights to accomplish hockey's ultimate goal, here are a few pivotal moments that shaped the future Hall of Famer's career.

Playing for Pat Burns

Thornton was 18 and a few months removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 draft when he made his NHL debut with the Boston Bruins. Hall of Famer Pat Burns was the Bruins coach at that time, and the hard-nosed bench boss helped Thornton's transition to the pro game. Thornton played 55 games his rookie season and registered only three goals and four assists for seven points.

"I probably spent more time in his office talking to him than I did on the ice that year," Thornton recalled in October. "He was a good mentor to me, and he definitely taught me a lot and taught me to be a man at a young age, so throughout my career I was happy to have a hard coach like Pat. But he was fair to me.

"He was known to be hard on young kids, and he was, but I think that's what helped me through a lot of these years. Really, nothing fazes me and he knew if you're going to have a long career, you're going to have to have a hard coach at the beginning to set you straight."

In his seven-plus seasons with the Bruins, Thornton played for Burns, then Mike Keenan, Robbie Ftorek, Mike O'Connell and Mike Sullivan. In fact, Sullivan, the current coach of the Penguins, was also a teammate late in his career during the 1997-98 season. Sullivan was coach of the Bruins in 2003-04 and 2005-06.

The trade

The Bruins traded Thornton to the Sharks on Nov. 30, 2005, in exchange for Brad Stuart,Marco Sturmand Wayne Primeau. At the time, Thornton's teammates held him in such high regard that Bruins players were angry, so the team's assistant captains told Sullivan they wanted then-GM O'Connell to address the team and explain the move.

The meeting soon became ugly, with players irate, especially veterans Glen Murray and Nick Boynton, two teammates who were close with Thornton. The players believed by trading Thornton, who at that point had 454 points in 532 games for the Bruins, management was giving up on the team.

On media day before the 2016 Stanley Cup finals, Thornton explained he didn't have time to think about the trade when it happened because the Sharks had a game the next day, so the transition was quick.

"Probably two nights," Thornton said. "I think if it happens during the offseason, it might take a while, but for me, I was traded and boom, you've got to play the next night, so you've got to get over it quick and get ready for your new teammates."

After Thornton was traded, the Bruins went 8-6-1 in the next 15 games but finished 13th in the East and missed the playoffs. The Sharks went 10-4-1 in the 15 games after he arrived, finishing fifth in the Western Conference and advancing to the second round of the playoffs before losing to theEdmonton Oilers. The trade seemedto light a fire under Thornton, as he had an impressive 92 points in 58 games with the Sharks that season. He went on to win the scoring title as well as the Hart Memorial Trophy as MVP. Overall,Thornton has played 1,367 regular-season games and has 1,341 points.

Losing the 'C'

After wearing the "C" on his sweater for four seasons with the Sharks, Thornton was stripped of the captaincy in 2014 after San Jose imploded and lost a 3-0 series lead against theLos Angeles Kingsin the first round of theStanley Cup playoffs. Even though he lost the "C," Thornton is still considered the leader in the room. When Thornton lost the letter, there was an ugly exchange between GM Doug Wilson and Thornton. The two have since mended their working relationship, and their professionalism is one reason the Sharks are in the finals against the Penguins.

... and one more to come?

Many think Thornton's laid-back personality will prevent him from winning a championship. After all, it took him 18 seasons to reach the finals.

But now that he's reached this point, he's playing like it's do-or-die. In 21 games this postseason, he has three goals and 17 assists for 20 points. He's been one of the team's best players for the majority of the season, and his teammates are feeding off his energy and production. There's a sense in the room to win it for Jumbo Joe.

"I've said it for a long time -- the guy's a legend," Sharks defensemanBrent Burnssaid. "He's unreal. He's one of the best to play. He's that good. He's so good at protecting the puck and making plays. He's huge for us."

Thornton's overall game still isn't perfect. Defensively he hasn't been at his best in the playoffs, but he's improving.

"I've seen an overall commitment from him in his game," an Atlantic Division coach said. "He's still a great playmaker, but not only is he more involved defensively, but also in the physical part of the game as well. I'm sure he knows he may never get another chance and it shows in his game."