Editor's note: NESN.com is running a five-part series on Shawn Thornton this week. Part III explored his wild days in the minors. This is Part IV, looking at his NHL career before he got to Boston.
Shawn Thornton's first taste of NHL life consisted of one of the most thankless jobs in sports.
Drafted by the Maple Leafs in the seventh round in 1997, he spent the next four seasons toiling for Toronto's American Hockey League affiliate in St. John's. His only sniff of life in the big leagues came from his annual use as cannon fodder in the preseason at a time when NHL exhibition games produced the kind of scenes that would shock a Hanson Brother.
"Any time there was going to be an absolute gong show, they made sure I was in the game," Thornton said. "Against Chicago there was one exhibition game with like 16 fights or something and I was three [fights] and out. I was always around to dress for those games, that's for sure."
A decade later, Thornton was at the pinnacle of the sport. He won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and the Ducks were certainly thankful for all the contributions he made to that championship run.
"Thorty was a real good soldier for our group," Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said. "He came in and played dirty minutes for us. He was a guy who came in and turned the tide in games a lot of times with his physical play.
"He's a lot more astute as a hockey player, as far as understanding systems and where to be positionally than people give him credit for," Carlyle added. "He toiled a long time and was probably almost out of hockey and found a way to claw himself back in. He's been a self-made player. For a guy like Shawn Thornton, it's a great tribute for him to be playing at the level he's playing at and with the contributions he's making to the hockey team he plays for."
It was definitely a long and challenging journey for Thornton to get from those early exhibition donnybrooks to hoisting the Cup, but he appreciated every opportunity he got along the way. Even those preseason tilts for Toronto hold a special place in the Ontario native's heart.
"It was an experience and I was happy," Thornton said. "Growing up as a kid just outside Toronto and being able to put on that jersey, even though it was just for exhibition, it was definitely an honor for me."
That excitement lasted throughout most of Thornton's stay in St. John's, but by his fourth season with the Baby Leafs in 2000-01, the daily grind of AHL life had lost a bit of its luster. With little hope of getting called up to a Toronto team already had Tie Domi entrenched as its enforcer and had just added Wade Belak off waivers in February 2001, Thornton knew he needed a change of scenery.
Thornton's kind of town, Chicago is
Thornton got his chance at a fresh start when he was traded to the Blackhawks for fellow minor leaguer Marty Wilford near the end of training camp on Sept. 30, 2001. Wilford has played 14 seasons in the minors and Europe without ever making it to the NHL, but Thornton would get his first shot in Chicago.
"I think it probably happened at the right time for me," Thornton said of the trade. "My first three years [in the AHL], I was just happy to be there. My fourth year was kind of tough and I probably needed to move on and I got moved to Chicago."
Thornton spent his entire first season in the Chicago organization in the AHL, but he quickly learned things were different with the Blackhawks. There were opportunities that could be earned in Chicago. All the proof of that he needed came from the sight of two guys he had battled often in the AHL already up with the Blackhawks.
"I played in Norfolk, and this is not taking anything away from these guys at all, but [Ryan] VandenBussche and Downs [Aaron Downey] were both in Chicago that year," Thornton said. "They deserved to be. They had put their time in with that organization, but in my head I was like, 'If those guys can play there, then I can play there.' I had improved enough as a player."
Thornton also had an added comfort level in the Chicago organization because his former coach in St. John's, Al MacAdam, had moved on to become an assistant with the Blackhawks from 2000-04. MacAdam had helped Thornton develop as a player in St. John's, and he witnessed that progress continue when he joined the Blackhawks system.
"His confidence level for playing in the NHL was there," said MacAdam, who is now a scout for Buffalo. "Those guys have to be able to play, and he was able to advance himself into a player with the ability to fight as well."
MacAdam's boss was Brian Sutter, a former Bruins coach and one of six rugged Sutter brothers to play in the NHL. Sutter appreciated a player like Thornton who could add some toughness to the lineup without being a liability in other areas.
"Brian Sutter was there, and I think it kind of helped me [having played for MacAdam before]," Thornton said of going to Chicago. "I played one full year in the minors in Norfolk, but the next year I made the team out of camp and Al definitely helped me get there. I think that Sutter liked guys that worked hard and put their nose down and just went. That's what I tried to do and I think Al accentuated the fact that was the type of player I was in his ear, so that's how I got my foot in the door."
Thornton still had to bide his time with VandenBussche and Downey, not to mention the legendary Bob Probert, all already supplying toughness in Chicago in 2001-02. But after his first season in Norfolk, Thornton was ready to finally to make the leap to the NHL. Probert had retired, Downey had moved on to Dallas, and Thornton had a strong enough camp to stick in Chicago at the start of the 2002-03 season.
He made his NHL debut on Oct. 10 in Columbus, and managed to keep his nerves under control.
"I was very fortunate. I think if I had been sent down and called up in November I would have been a nervous wreck," Thornton said. "But I played the last exhibition game against Detroit, played with [Steve] Sullivan and [Michael] Nylander and had a really good game. I started the season on that line. I was on the second line, so it was an easy transition for me. I was nervous, but not as bad as if I had been called up."
Thornton's second game when the Blackhawks returned home to face Buffalo proved even more memorable, as he collected his first NHL point and engaged in his first regular-season scrap, though the latter wasn't such a pleasant memory.
"My first home game, my buddies flew in to Chicago and I got in my first fight," Thornton said. "I got knocked out by Eric Boulton. But I got my first point, too. I got an assist on Stevie Sullivan's goal. I probably shouldn't have gone out with the boys after that game. I probably should have been resting my concussion, but oh well."
Thornton stayed up for 13 games, scoring his first NHL goal in Carolina on Oct. 26, but he was sent back to Norfolk in November. He'd have to wait more than a year for his next game in Chicago.
"It was awesome," Thornton said of that first stint in the NHL. "I felt like I belonged. But then my game began to slip. I think I got a little bit comfortable. People warned me, but I didn't see it. I see it now looking back, but I was healthy scratched a few times, then somebody came off the IR and me and my two-way contract were back in the minors for the rest of the season. But it was an unbelievable experience. It was my first time in the NHL."
Thornton played eight more games in 2003-04 with a goal and three fights, and was poised for a full-time job the following season. But there was no NHL season in 2004-05. The entire campaign was wiped out by the owners' lockout, and Thornton struggled to deal with another year in the minors with no hope of a call-up.
"That was a miserable year for everybody," Thornton said. "There was nothing to look forward to. A lot of guys thought they could have been in the NHL. It was a tough year. It probably put me another step back."
Thornton's frustrations only mounted when NHL play resumed without him in 2005-06. His former coach in Norfolk, Trent Yawney, was now behind the bench in Chicago, and he wanted to bring Thornton up with him. Thornton was finally recalled in late November, but didn't play much. He got in just 10 games, but didn't mind the press box duty. Being sent back down one final time at New Year's wasn't quite as agreeable.
"I was so happy to be there, it didn't matter [being scratched] with the paycheck every two weeks," said Thornton, at the time a newlywed after marrying his wife, Erin. "There were a lot of sacrifices. I spent Christmas alone. It was our first year being married and I didn't see my wife from October until January. She flew in New Year's Eve and I got sent down New Year's Day. So there were a lot of sacrifices, but bottom line it's still a heck of a lot better being a healthy scratch in the NHL than a second-liner in the AHL any day of the week."
One final shot with the Ducks
Having tasted the good life in the NHL in Chicago, Thornton wasn't looking forward to going back to riding the buses in the AHL when he entered free agency in 2006. But his prospects didn't look good with the Blackhawks.
"Chicago had offered me a contract to come back," Thornton said. "It wasn't a very good one. It wasn't a very flattering one at all."
Thornton was entering his 10th pro season and was about ready to give up on his dream. He was already exploring other career possibilities, but he was willing to give it just one more shot.
"This was going to be my last year," Thornton said. "I was going to give it a chance with one other team. I was like, 'One more year. If I'm in the minors after this, that was it. I'm going to become a cop.' I'd been on a few ridealongs and played shinny hockey with a bunch of sergeants in Toronto. We had some friends that were Toronto police officers, and I was on my way to do that. I'd had enough of riding buses."
After spending nine years with a pair of Original Six franchises, it would be the hockey hotbed of Anaheim that saved Thornton's career. Not right away though, as he still was assigned to the Anaheim's AHL affiliate in Portland out of camp after signing a one-year, two-way deal with the Ducks.
His big break came when Derek Boogaard broke Anaheim enforcer Todd Fedoruk's cheekbone in a fight. Thornton was called up to replace him, and after a brief return to Portland, played well enough to stick with the Ducks for the rest of the season.
"I went down to Portland, played eight games and Fedoruk unfortunately got his face broken by Boogaard," Thornton said. "Unfortunate for him, fortunate for me. So I went up and played seven or eight games. Then I got called back up two weeks after that and the first game back I had a Gordie Howe hat trick, [and in the] second game I had two more assists.
"I had three points in the previous time I was up playing with [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry, so I was at seven points in nine games and had three fights," Thornton added. "Once you get 10 games you have to clear waivers [to be sent down], so at least my audition got me my 10th game and once I was there, I was there. I got to play the whole year there."
Thornton picked the right team and right season to finally become an NHL regular. The Ducks finished second in the Western Conference with 110 points and rolled to the franchise's first Stanley Cup. Thornton played 48 games in the regular season, more than the 31 games in had played in his previous nine pro seasons combined.
"Obviously it was the right place at the right time," Thornton said. "That year that was a special team. There always a little bit of swagger about us. I was a small spoke on the wheel, but I was glad to be part of it."
He was also part of the playoffs for the first time in the NHL, dressing for 15 postseason games in Anaheim's Cup run.
"My first NHL playoff action, I've never been so excited in my life," Thornton said. "I was probably more excited for that than I was for my first NHL game. NHL playoffs, what better time of year? It's what every kid dreams of. It was awesome."
Thornton's 15th playoff game was even better. That was Game 5 of the Final, when the Ducks closed out their title run with a 6-2 win over Ottawa and Thornton got to hoist the Cup for the first time. It was actually the first time Thornton touched the Cup, as even when he was buried in the minors he stuck by the superstition to avoid all contact with the Cup until he won it himself.
"In 2004 when Tampa won, I had played with [Lightning defenseman] Dan Boyle and we were invited to his Cup party," recalled Dave Duerden, a junior teammate and close friend of Thornton's. "I had no apprehension about touching the Cup, but I remember laughing at Shawn because he would not touch the Cup. He kept saying, 'I'm not touching it until I win it.' At that point he was still in the AHL. No one could have forecasted what he went on to do, but he refused to touch the Cup that day, and lo and behold, three years later, there he is with the Cup. Maybe that's what proves he's a bigger dreamer than most, and he's turned that dream into a reality."
Thornton's dream had come true, but even four years — and a second title — later, he still struggles to describe the feeling of lifting that Cup for the first time.
"It's tough to put into words," Thornton said. "It was Game 5 and I was sitting next to Brad May and we had it in the bag. It was the longest but the best 3-4 minutes of my life at that point. Just watching the clock, the seconds seemed to last for minutes and the minutes for hours, but once that buzzer went, it was so unexpected for me. I never thought I'd be in the NHL, let alone win a Stanley Cup, so it was very, very … yeah there's no real words to explain it."
For Part V, click here.