All these years later Shawn Thornton admits he nearly packed it in long ago. What a shame that would have been.
Stuck in the minors for nine years doing one of hockey’s nastiest jobs, that of the enforcer, it was becoming evident to Thornton that his dream of playing in the NHL was slipping away.
A seventh round draft pick (190th overall) by Toronto in 1997, Thornton never played a game with the Maple Leafs. Eventually he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, but in three seasons, he appeared in 31 NHL games. After playing the better part of nine seasons in the AHL – 605 regular season games, a career most players would have been proud to call their own – Thornton was getting close to calling it a day.
“I had my sights set on becoming a police officer in Toronto, but I wanted to try one more organization first,” said the 39-year-old Thornton, now in his third season with the Florida Panthers.
What a great decision that turned out to be.
Thornton signed as a free agent with Anaheim in 2006 and after an unfortunate incident in which the team’s tough guy, Todd Fedoruk, was injured following a fight with Derek Boogaard, Thornton got the call to join the Ducks. He has never looked back, winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim that season and another with the Boston Bruins in 2010-11.
Thornton has always understood his role. In order to be of value to his team, the 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pound Thornton had to intimidate and fight. He did so to the tune of 85 scraps in the AHL where his final numbers read: 61 goals and 161 points to go with 2,468 penalty minutes.
In the NHL, Thornton has 40 goals and 98 points with 1,036 PIM, engaging in 150 fights through preseason, regular season and playoff games. It hasn’t been all scrapping, though.
“I am pretty proud that I had a year where I scored 10 goals and 20 points (with the Bruins in ’10-11),” Thornton said. “For a knuckle dragger I was pretty happy with that. It’s not easy to get 10 goals in the NHL when you are playing limited minutes.”
It has been said the Pittsburgh Penguins once protected defenseman Marc Bergevin in an expansion draft simply because he was popular with his teammates. The same can be said for Thornton. The Oshawa, Ont., native was set to do some TV work with NESN in Boston this season until the Panthers talked him into playing one more season for $600,000. In a nutshell, they value his influence on the young players in the organization.
There was one caveat, however.
“They flat out said I would not play many games – that I might not even play one – and asked me if I was okay with that role,” Thornton said. “They said they didn’t want me moping around the locker room. I said, ‘Yeah, of course. I have been a team guy my whole career; that’s not going to change.’ I am very happy to be around the game still and if I get into the lineup every now and then it’s a bonus.”
Thornton has played in three of Florida’s 20 games averaging 13 shifts and 8:31 of ice time per outing.
On game days when he knows he is not dressing, Thornton arrives at the arena at 8:30 a.m. and does a 30 minute cardio workout followed by 45 minutes of strength training in the gym.
“I’m staying in shape,” Thornton professed. “Even though they said I wasn’t going to play much I wanted to stay in good shape and not just mail it in. I lost 10 pounds in the off-season. I didn’t want to disappoint them and let them down after they gave me a chance to play another year at 39.”
Nobody is disappointed in Thornton’s career. As a junior with the Peterborough Petes, Thornton skated on the fourth line as a rookie and then split his time between playing wing and defense in his second year. While many of his gifted teammates have long since retired from hockey, Thornton is still playing. He doesn’t like to boast about himself, but conceded, “I would assume people would say it is because I work harder than everybody else and that is what has kept me around.”
Thornton will move into the Panthers front office following this season. He shakes his head in amazement of all he has accomplished after nearly quitting following the 2005-06 season.
“I’m 39 and I’m still doing it,” Thornton said with a boyish grin.