Joe Thornton  
 


From a distance, you’d swear that Joe Thornton is the reincarnation of Jeff Spicoli, the carefree stoner from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” But while the Boston Bruins’ leader by example may have a lot of kid in him, it’s buried in an imposing 6-4, 220-pound frame. A nose-to-the-grindstone goal here, a flashy pass there, and an occasional cross-check when the ref’s not looking—it’s all part of his repertoire. At the ripe old age of 22, Joe is on the cusp of superstardom. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Joseph Eric Thornton was born in London, Ontario, on July 2, 1979. “Joey” to friends and family, he was the third of three boys. There seemed little doubt that he would be a big kid—his mom, Mary, stands just a shade under 6 feet tall; his dad, Wayne, is a solid 6-1. Older brothers Alex and John were the biggest kids in their grades, and both ended up looking like NFL linemen. At 6-4 Joe is by far the smallest kid in the family.

The Thorntons moved to St. Thomas, also in Ontario, when Joe was little. Before Joe rose to prominence, the biggest thing that had happened there was the death of Jumbo, P.T. Barnum’s legendary elephant, who was struck by a train in the rail yards in 1885.


 
 

Joe was a quiet kid who enjoyed a wide variety of sports. His oldest brother, Al, was his first sports idol. When Joe began playing hockey, Wayne Gretzky took over this role. In fact, one of his proudest moments was when his parents let him redo his room with wallpaper emblazoned with images of the Great One. Joe’s parents took him to Maple Leaf Gardens to see Gretzky in person, and he began emulating his playmaking style.

The player Joe most looked up to was his older cousin, Scott, a terrific young forward whom everyone agreed had a shot at an NHL career. At the age of 15, he became a star for the hometown London Diamonds, then went on to play for Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League. When Scott was 18, he was drafted in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs—who along with the Oilers were one of Joe’s two favorite teams. It was a great day for the Thornton family. Joe wondered about the possibilities of the clan producing another first-rounder.

This dream did not seem so far-fetched. At 10, Joe was already skating circles around his buddies in youth league games. He was also a very good football player. Whenever possible, Joe wore uniform number 19. John was an insane Steve Yzerman fan and convinced his little brother that the number would be lucky for him, too.

At the age of 14, Joe hopped on the hockey fast track. He began with the Elgin Elks in 1993-94, then caught on with the more advanced St. Thomas Stars for a few games. All told, he registered 176 point in 73 games. Joe returned to the Stars for the 1994-95 season. In 50 games, he netted 40 goals and added 64 assists. This earned him a prominent place in Canada’s vaunted Junior Hockey draft. Joe was tabbed by Sault Ste. Marie, where he joined a team starring Richard Uniacke, Brian Secord, Richard Jackman, Jeff Gries and goalie Dan Cloutier. The Greyhounds finished third in the Ontario Hockey League’s West Division. Joe scored 30 times with 46 assists to earn OHL Rookie of the Year honors.

ON THE RISE

Joe reminded a lot of people of Mario Lemieux and Eric Lindros. At 6-4 and 200 pounds he was as big as they had been at the same age, and had similar skills. All eyes were on the 16-year-old as he prepared for his second OHL season. Playing on a Sault Ste. Marie team that featured at least a half-dozen serious NHL prospects, Joe did it all. He averaged two points a game and made his teammates look great by feeding them marvelous passes. Joe got so good that there were times enemy defensemen did not even bother to challenge him for fear of looking stupid. He was hailed as the best player produced by the OHL in years.


Wayne Gretzky, 1989 Esso
 
 

Joe’s final numbers for 1996-97 were 41 goals and 81 assists in 59 games. His team won the West, but strangely he was not voted to the OHL First-Team All-Star squad. Still, he was considered a no-brainer #1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft.

Joe arrived at the draft wearing his best suit—a hideous brown one—and beamed when his name was called, as expected, by the Boston Bruins. A few minutes later the Bruins grabbed Moscow native Sergei Samsonov with the #8 selection, which they acquired from Carolina. Before Joe emerged as the dominant Junior, some predicted the diminutive Samsonov would be the top overall selection. Needless to say, the Bruins were ecstatic with their first-rounders. Other notables from this deep draft were centers Patrick Marleau (who plays with Joe’s cousin for the Sharks) and Olli Jokinen, as well as forward Marian Hossa and goalie Roberto Luongo.

Contract talks with the Bruins went smoothly, thanks to agent Mike Barnett—who was also Wayne Gretzky’s agent. Soon after the draft Joe inked an incentive-laden three-year deal with a $925,000 base salary. He then journeyed to Boston, saw the sights, ate at Cheers, and tried to get a handle on what big-city life was all about. Initially, Joe assumed he’d be headed back to Sault Ste. Marie for his final Junior season. But the Bruins needed a headline-maker, and Joe was their man. The team billeted him in Brookline with the Hyneses, a suburban family that had taken in young Bruin prospects in the past. He also hired a personal trainer to improve his fitness.


Joe Thornton, 1996-97 Scoreboard
 
 

Joe seemed unfazed by the prospect of jumping from his Junior team right to the NHL, but that did not mean that he was mature for his age. If anything, he was a “young” 18—big, goofy and completely naive. Although Boston was excited about having the “next Lindros,” experts pointed out that Joe was actually a year-and-a-half younger than Lindros when he started his first NHL campaign.

Meanwhile, a good deal of preseason attention was being focused on new coach Pat Burns. He was signed to a team-record $3 million contract and charged with resuscitating the Bruins after their worst season in three decades. The cantankerous, high-profile Burns was hired over Ron Wilson, the best pure hockey guy on the market. The Bruins needed what Burns gave them—a coach who could light a fire under the franchise and get the players off to a quick start.

Burns had no particular plan for Joe. He hoped to bring him along slowly and carefully, but was mostly concerned with not screwing him up. When the press pushed Burns for comments on his 18-year-old phenom, he tried to scale down their expectations. Privately, though, he told Joe that with time, patience and consistency, he would develop into a big-time center. Burns also had high hopes for Samsonov and young Anson Carter, who were really growing into their games.


Eric Lindros (center): 1996 Beckett
 
  Joe broke his arm before the regular season began, but returned four games into the schedule against the Phoenix Coyotes. When he finally took the ice for the Bruins, fans were immediately struck by his size. He did not look like your typical 18-year-old.

Joe saw mostly fourth-line duty as a rookie. He was easily overwhelmed by the size and speed of NHL players, and therefore tentative at times. His lack of minutes (typically six to eight per game) became an issue, both between the team and Burns, and between Joe’s parents and the Bruins. The coach rarely played him late in the final period, and tried to use him only when the Bruins were winning, or at least skating well. On most shifts Joe’s job was to tie up opponents or dig for loose pucks along the boards and in the corners. His other skills only revealed themselves in flashes. Joe’s first goal came in a December game against the Flyers.

On practice days, Joe would work out with the team, then stay late for special skating drills concocted by assistant Jacques Laperriere. This really wore him out. The rigorous NHL schedule also took its toll. At times he moved sluggishly, or just stood around waiting for a teammate to make something happen. He was also prone to illness, missing more than a dozen games between a bout with cellulitis and a bad virus. As a result, he never really found his rhythm and ended up with abysmal stats—scoring just three goals in 55 games. Although the hockey pundits lambasted Joe for his poor performance the Bruins were quietly content with his progress.


Joe Thornton & Sergei Samsonov,
1997 The Hockey News
 
 

They were also pleased with their record. The team improved by 13 wins, finishing with the NHL’s eighth-highest point total. Center Jason Allison, just 23, had a transcendent season. He led the team in almost every category and ranked among the league’s best in scoring and plus-minus. Samsonov benefitted from playing on Allison’s line and won the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year. The third member of this line, Ukrainian winger Dmitri Khristich, also enjoyed an excellent season, particularly on the power play. And veteran Ray Bourque had his usual solid campaign.

Unfortunately, youthful enthusiasm does not get you far in the playoffs, where experience and depth make a huge difference. The Bruins lost in six games to Washington in their opening-round series.

The 1998-99 season saw the Bruins duplicate their fine record from the previous year, winning 39 times and finishing with 91 points. Joe—who stayed in Boston over the off-season and packed 15 pounds of muscle to his frame under the watchful eye of strength coach Mike Boyle—eventually earned a promotion to second-line center, and made excellent progress. With a little more ice time, he began to show the incredible vision and creativity that had so excited the scouts.


Jason Allison, 1997-98 Upper Deck
 
 

Still, Joe finished the season with only 25 assists. That total could have been higher, but on many occasions he would surprise teammates with passes threaded through a forest of skates, and they were unable to convert the scoring chances. Meanwhile, though Burns predicted 20 goals for his young center, Joe ended up with just 16. By the close of the schedule, however, he was looking to shoot more and more. He also showed that he could handle himself with the league’s thugs, who were starting to pay a little more attention to him. Toward the end of the year, Bryan Marchment tried to rough Joe up and got a mouthful of fist for his troubles.

In the playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes, Joe raised his game another notch. With the series knotted 2-2, and Game 5 already in double-overtime, he worked a give-and-go with Carter. The play resulted in a spectacular game-winning tally. In Game 6, Joe polished off the ’Canes with the series-clinching goal. In the next round, against the Sabres, Joe scored another game-winner against Dominik Hasek. Unfortunately for the young Bruins, they did not survive this series. But Joe—with three goals and six assists in 11 games—was finally playing the kind of hockey everyone expected.

MAKING HIS MARK

Not surprisingly, Boston had high hopes for the 1999-2000 season. Joe and the other young Bruins seemed ready to go deep into the playoffs. But for a number of reasons, the team never quite got untracked. Khristich left for Toronto after a salary squabble, Allison missed half the year with an assortment of injuries, Samsonov’s focus seemed to wander for games at a time, and on many nights the aging Bourque could barely muster enough enthusiasm to suit up and play. With coach Burns screaming at his players all year, Boston wasn’t a fun place to play.

This did not faze Joe a bit. In the midst of a truly ugly season, with his ice time almost doubled, he blossomed into a quality first-line center. Going up against opponents’ best checking units, Joe more than held his own, leading the team in goals (23) and assists (37). He succeeded despite a nagging shoulder injury, which needed to be surgically repaired after the season. Joe also took more penalties than anyone else on the club. As Boston’s only consistent scoring threat, he was targeted by league bullies every time he took the ice. His youth showed, as he often fought back at exactly the wrong times, and ended up watching too much action from the penalty box.

There were no playoffs in 2000 for Joe. Despite good years from Carter and defenseman Kyle McLaren, the Bruins sank to the bottom of the standings. The season was also marked by the departure of Bourque, a fixture in the Bruin lineup since 1979. He never won a Stanley Cup in Boston, which acceded to his desire to play for a contender before his career came to a close. The team shipped him to the Colorado Avalanche with a month to go.

Twenty-one games into the 2000-01 campaign, Carter was gone, too. The Bruins swapped him for Bill Guerin, a physical winger with a wicked slapshot. A Massachusetts native, Guerin came alive in Boston, netting 28 goals to finish the season with an even 40. Allison, fully healed and back in top form, centered for Guerin, who doubled as his protection. Joe gave Boston a “second” first line, which put the pressure on enemy defenses. Some opponents marshalled their crack forces against Allison’s line; others chose to pound on Joe and his linemates. As always, he was more than happy to pound right back, and for the first time topped 100 minutes of penalty time. That number might have gone higher were it not for his new 6-5, 240-pound left wing, Andrei Nazarov, who scared the bejesus out of Bruin opponents. Joe was suspended twice for getting too creative with his stick, but he looked like Lord Fauntleroy compared to Nazarov, who racked up a mind-blowing 27 major penalties during the year.


Joe Thornton, 1998-99 SP Authentic
 
 

Interestingly, Joe made his greatest strides when his foes were in the box. He was Boston’s most potent weapon on power plays, netting 19 goals to finish second in the NHL. He became more selective in his shot-taking, scoring on more than 20 percent of his attempts. Joe also improved as a faceoff man. His final numbers—37 goals, 34 assists—lifted him a step closer to the league’s elite forwards. The Bruins finished the year with 88 points and just missed the playoffs. But they now had an excellent nucleus of All-Star caliber players.

Much of the credit for Joe’s strong season went to Mike Keenan, who replaced Pat Burns as coach early in the year. Known for riding underperforming players, Keenan stayed true to form with Joe, who responded with a stellar campaign. Keenan kept telling Joe he had a chance to become one of the league’s great talents. Eventually, he began to believe it.

For failing to guide Boston into the postseason, Keenan got his walking papers. He was replaced by Robbie Ftorek. A superstar in the old World Hockey Association, Ftorek had bumped around the coaching ranks for more than a decade before landing the head job with the New Jersey Devils in 1998. He was replaced late in the 1999-2000 season despite the fact his team was in first place, and amazingly the Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup. This embarrassing turn of events did not phase the Bruins, who hired the Massachusetts native to take over the reins in 2001-02. They liked his simple, straightforward approach.

After working with Joe in the pre-season, Ftorek was convinced he could be a superior first-line center. This precipitated the trade of Jason Allison to the Kings after he got into a contract squabble with the team. At first the deal looked like a dump, as Boston received Jozef Stumpel and Glen Murray in return. Stumpel was a moderately skilled playmaking center, while Murray had been banished from Boston seven years earlier for failing to become the “next Cam Neely.” His return was greeted by a collective yawn.


Joe Thornton, 2000-01 Heritage
 
 

But things have a funny way of working out. Murray, a lumbering right wing, improved every aspect of his game and scored 41 goals. Stumpel finessed his way to a 50-assist season. Brian Rolston, picked up in the Ray Bourque deal, had his first 30-goal season despite playing on a checking line. Guerin had another solid year, matching Murray’s 41 goals for a share of the team lead. As for Joe, he inherited Samsonov after the Allison trade and became the Bruins’ first-line center.

The Thornton-Samsonov pairing was sheer genius. Joe was a bruising big man with a feathery passing touch. Sergei was a sleek greyhound who was just coming into his own as a finisher. They combined for 51 goals and 87 assists, despite the fact they played with a changing cast of right wings. With Joe working the boards and pulling pucks out of the corners—and Samsonov darting all over the ice—it was no picnic playing Boston.

Early in the year, Joe was in the hunt for the NHL scoring lead. Though a February shoulder injury forced him to the bench and out of contention for the Art Ross Trophy, his hot start proved that he was ready to become a big-time scorer. Joe’s biggest disappointment during the year was being left off his country’s Olympic roster. He desperately wanted to play for Team Canada, which ended up winning the gold medal. While Wayne Gretzky didn't put him on the team, he did call Joe to let him know he would be needed in case of an injury. When Joe looked at the centers on the Canadian squad—a list of megastars including Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman—he realized that Gretzky’s hands indeed had been tied.

The Bruins improved by seven wins and finished 2001-02 with 101 points to take the Eastern Conference crown. Ftorek installed a fun new offense that brought out the best in everyone, and the team also played better defense, at least during the regular season. Joe averaged a point a night (22 goals, 46 assists in 66 games), played in his first All-Star Game, and was voted Second-Team All-NHL. The year ended on a down note, however, when Boston was upended by the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs. The loss exposed some defensive weaknesses that did not have obvious short-term solutions.

The 2002 offseason was a tough one for Boston fans. The team, which is tight-fisted in the best of times, decided to put away its checkbook until after a new collective bargaining agreement was reached. That meant no long-term deals, which in turn prompted the departure via free agency of Guerin and goalie Byron Dafoe.

The Bruins gambled that Joe and his young teammates would take a collective great leap forward in 2002-03. The other part of the plan was for veterans and roll players to step up, too. Wishful thinking or a carefully calculated percentage play? That’s why they play 82 games.

The season started on a positive note for Boston, and by the end of November the team had the most points in the NHL. Joe—with two new linemates, Murray and Mike Knuble—led the charge. The trio mixed brute strength with pretty passing and timely goal-scoring to become one of the league’s most dangerous combinations.

But as the calendar turned to 2003, the Bruins experienced hard times. With the departure of Dafoe, the goaltending situation was uncertain, and the club’s overall commitment to defense wasn’t consistent either. A wrist injury to Samsonov also derailed the team. Boston fell back in the standings, setting up a dogfight for one of the last few playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

By March, with the team still struggling, GM Mike O’Connell took action. Already he had traded for netminder Jeff Hackett from Montreal, a deal that strengthened the team in its own end. But when the Bruins didn’t respond well enough to the change, O’Connell axed Ftorek and moved behind the bench himself. Joe and his teammates got the message, and put together a solid finish to secure seventh place in the East.

Unfortunately, that earned the Bruins a date with New Jersey in the first round of the post-season. Boston was no match for the more experienced and more talented Devils, bowing out in five games. Joe tied defenseman Dan McGillis for the team lead in points (3) for the series, but at a minus-5 he showed he still has much to learn about playoff hockey.

Looking at the big picture, Joe’s 2002-03 campaign was a success. With 36 goals and 65 assists, he threatened all year long for the league scoring title, ending third in a close race behind Peter Forsberg and Markus Nasland. More important, however, Joe displayed the ability to lift the performance of those around him. Indeed, Murray and Knuble both enjoyed career seasons, notching 74 goals between them. It seemed clear that Joe was gaining a better understanding of what it meant to be a leader on the ice and in the clubhouse. Asked to shoulder more of Boston’s scoring load, he produced his best year to date. 

Prior to the 2003-04 season, O’Connell hired Mike Sullivan as the Bruins’ new head coach. Bostonians had high hopes—anything short of a run for the Stanley Cup would be unacceptable.

After Joe’s 101-point campaign, he received criticism for not being at the top of the league's scorers by mid-season.Though third overall in assists, he wasn't putting the puck in the net often enough. With the Bruins mired in a two-month slump, Joe was the man being counted on to lift the team. In late-January, he squared off against Eric Lindros after the Rangers center cross-checked him. Joe landed his first swings but got nailed with a right that sent him to the ice, fracturing his right cheekbone. After surgery, Joe returned to the ice wearing a cage, but the protective device affected his vision. 

Later in the year, Joe suffered another injury after being hooked in a game against the Devils. He fell awkwardly on the ice, sat out the last game of the season, but was able to make it back for Boston's first-round series against the Canadiens. The Bruins enjoyed home-ice advantage after securing the number two seed in the Eastern Conference.

But Joe’s rib injury slowed him, and he barely contributed during the best-of-seven series. After seizing a three-games-to-one lead, the Bruins let it slip away, as the Canadiens won the last three in dominant fashion. Joe was skewered in the press, ending the series with no points. What didn't make as many headlines was the fact that before each game, he had to take pain-numbing shots.

Though the Bruins exited in the first round for the third straight year, he remained optimistic nonetheless. He finished the season with 73 points on 23 goals and 50 assists, and said he would recover fully from his injuries. Joe was true to his word. Chosen to represent Canada in the World Cup of Hockey, he accepted a supporting role primarily as a checker. While his ice time was limited, he skated hard and contributed valuable minutes as a defensive forward. After the Canadians took the title, Wayne Gretzky was among those who praised Joe for his unselfishness and work ethic. 

Like the rest of his NHL buddies, Joe now faces the possibility of a long off-season due to the labor dispute between the owners and players. He made preparations by signing to play in Europe with Switzerland’s Davos club. Since September, some 200 players have followed suit. In fact, Rick Nash of Columbus also inked a deal with Davos. The two young stars will likely be linemates.

Joe continues to embrace the challenges before him with his trademark combination of head-down stubbornness and heads-up creativity. In the process, teammates and fans are hoping to see a little more Gretzky in their de facto captain and, perhaps just as notable, a little less Spicoli. When play resumes in the NHL, fast times in Boston may not be too far away.

JOE THE PLAYER


Jozef Stumpel, 1995-96 Parkhurst
 
 

Joe has made marked improvement in every facet of his game since coming into the leagaue. He seems to have no apparent limit in his shooting, passing, checking and faceoff skills. Joe is always around the puck, which is a tribute to his hockey insincts.

The Bruins would like Joe to be more active away from the puck, if only to force opponents to defend him more closely. That said, his skating has improved over the last couple of seasons.

The quality that truly makes him no “ordinary Joe” is that he doesn’t mind when things get physical. In fact, this separates him from the NHL’s other young, talented centers. Joe gives as good as he gets, almost joyfully at times. This hard edge sometimes lands him in the penalty box at inopportune moments, but as he matures he will learn to channel this reckless energy in positive ways—particularly at playoff times, when a well-placed elbow or bone-crunching body check can spell the difference between victory and defeat.



Joe Thornton, 2002 The Hockey News
 
 
Joe Thornton

 
   
 

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