“I’m surprised every time I get a point,” Thornton joked earlier this season.
Other times the Bruins’ tough guy bristles at the perception that he can contribute only by dropping the gloves and slugging it out with rival enforcers. He was quick to point out last week that he often saw regular time on the power play while in the American Hockey League.
“Always in the minors,” Thornton said. “I’m not one-dimensional, bud.”
It’s hard to get a serious answer out of the affable tough guy when the subject is his own ability, but opponents are certainly learning to take him serious this season.
Less than halfway through the year, Thornton has already established a new career high with seven goals. That may sound like a modest total, but it puts him even with the likes of Vincent Lecavalier, Alex Frolov, Alexandre Burrows, Shane Doan and Mike Green, not to mention his own teammates David Krejci and Mark Recchi.
Thornton, signed to a modest two-year extension worth $1.625 million this summer, is ahead of Ray Whitney (six goals) and Scott Gomez (five goals), who will make a combined $11.55 million this season. Thornton’s also just one goal behind stars Henrik Sedin, Marian Hossa, Mike Knuble, Alex Kovalev, Erik Cole, teammate Patrice Bergeron and Ilya Kovalchuk. Thornton’s unlikely scoring race with New Jersey’s $100-million man has been a source of humor all season, though the Devils probably don’t find it too funny.
Other teams haven’t been amused by Thornton’s scoring splurge this season either, not when the goals are coming at their expense. But they are certainly coming to respect his underrated ability.
“Thornton is a talent,” said Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay, who worked with Thornton as an assistant in Boston for three years before being hired by the Thrashers in June. “He has great hands. I have seen him do things in practice and score some wonderful goals. Thornton can do a lot more than people give him credit for. He’s got some real skill.
“Given those opportunities he’s going to punish you,” Ramsay added after Thornton’s two-goal night helped Boston defeat the Thrashers 4-1 last Thursday. “He got that shot away quickly from the high slot. There was some missed coverage by us a little bit and Thornton made us pay.”
A Long Road to Success
Ramsay got to work with a Thornton who was largely a finished product by the time he arrived in Boston in 2007. But it was a long and arduous journey to reach that point.
Thornton, 33, was drafted until the seventh round of the 1997 draft, when Toronto selected him with the 190th overall pick. He spent four seasons with the Leafs’ AHL affiliate in St. John’s, but never got a call-up to Toronto.
He did gain a valuable ally in the Toronto organization though. With his contract up and in need of a job in the summer of 2001, veteran Leafs enforcer Tie Domi made a number of calls on Thornton’s behalf trying to help him find a new team. One of those calls was to Randy Carlyle, then coaching the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League.
“He was never a guy that had the security that a lot of guys had, contract-wise and whatnot,” said Carlyle, who has been the Ducks’ head coach since 2005. “He was always one of those guys who was on the edge to whether he was going to play or not. I can remember getting a phone call from Tie Domi telling me when I was in the IHL, ‘Look, this kid Shawn Thornton is a tough kid and he can help you.’ He was part of the Leafs organization and he didn’t have a job. In my situation I didn’t have room for him because I had another player that fit the same mold, so that’s how far down and how far back Shawn Thornton was and how far he’s come.”
Thornton made the biggest leap with Anaheim in 2006-07, as he finally earned a regular role in the NHL after spending the bulk of his first nine years as a pro in the AHL. He got his shot after fellow tough guy Todd Fedoruk suffered a gruesome facial injury in a fight with Derek Boogaard, but Thornton took advantage of the opportunity and played 48 games in the regular season and 15 more in the playoffs en route to getting his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
“It took an unfortunate injury to a good guy and some good timing and some people that trusted me, finally,” Thornton said. “I was in the right spot at the right time and tried to make the most of the opportunity when I got it.”
Paying His Dues
Carlyle can attest to Thornton’s ability to take advantage of the chance he’d waited nearly a decade for, and the Anaheim coach isn’t surprised that Thornton has been even more successful in Boston.
“Thorty was a real good soldier for our group,” 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. 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.”
Thornton literally battled his way up to the NHL. In 605 games over parts of 10 seasons in the AHL, he racked up 2,473 penalty minutes and 219 fighting majors. He’s added another 558 PIMs and 80 fighting majors in 326 career games in the NHL.
While he’s provided an unexpected offensive boost this season, he hasn’t abandoned his primary role. He still leads the Bruins with 62 penalty minutes and eight fights and is fourth on the team with 66 hits. Despite giving up considerable size to most of his opponents, the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Thornton has taken on a murderers’ row of intimidating pugilists this season and held his own against the likes of Boogaard, Eric Godard, Jody Shelley, Darcy Hordichuk, Trevor Gillies, Jay Rosehill and Eric Boulton twice.
“He has a hard job,” linemate Greg Campbell said of Thornton. “Everybody in here respects the role that he does. It’s not an easy job. He’s worked hard to get where he is and for him to get that attention scoring goals and contributing in other ways, it’s nice to see that.”
Campbell is in his first season with the Bruins, and the combination of him, Thornton and Brad Marchand clicked immediately as Boston’s “energy line.” That trio has been Boston’s most consistent line all season, providing not only the physical play expected, but some timely scoring as well. Naturally, Thornton downplayed his role in that.
“Those two guys are really good hockey players,” Thornton said. “They probably get underrated a little just because they have to play with me.”
But both Campbell and Marchand insist Thornton is really the one whose skills are consistently underrated.
“I think a lot of people underestimate him,” Marchand said. “I know he’s a good player. I’ve seen him in practice a lot. He’s got some good hands. I think most of the time he doesn’t want to try it in games. He doesn’t want to turn the puck over. He knows his role and he plays it very well. He doesn’t want to be a liability out there, but I think this year it’s a little different out there. He’s getting a little more confident to try things and you’re going to see his skill come out a lot more.”
Suddenly a Sniper
Campbell can’t compare Thornton’s approach this year to past seasons, but he’s been impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“I think you find out more about guys when you play with them day in and day out, the kind of players that they are or can be,” Campbell said. “That happens though. You get the confidence shown in you by the coaches with the way they’ve been playing us, the role they’ve asked us to do. It’s only natural that your game’s going to evolve into something a little more. I think he knows what got him here, but for him to have that confidence to try some things is working out for him so far.”
“I’m happy to see him utilize his skill,” Julien said. “He’s got a great shot and we’ve seen it for years in practice where he shoots it pretty well. You encourage players to shoot the puck more but at the same time you have to get yourself in position to shoot more. I think he’s a better-skilled player than a lot of people think and probably a better-skilled player than he even thinks and I’m glad to see that he’s scoring some goals. You hope that confidence will continue to build and he’ll be able to help us out even more.”
Thornton’s offensive abilities haven’t been completely dormant in his career. He did reach double-digits three times in a season with 10 goals in 59 games with Norfolk (AHL) in 2005-06, 11 goals in 50 games with Norfolk in 2002-03 and 19 goals in 61 games in Peterborough (OHL) in 1996-97.
But in the NHL the numbers have been much more modest, right up to last year when he managed just one goal in 74 games. Even worse, that tally came in the second game of the season, and he didn’t score again over the final 72 regular-season games and 12 playoff contests. And his teammates haven’t let him forget about that drought either.
“He’s a real good team guy,” Milan Lucic said. “He sticks up for the team in every situation, so it’s great that he’s having some [scoring] success. Last year wasn’t too great for him, scoring in the second game of the season and then he wasn’t able to get another one after that.”
That hasn’t been a problem this year. His longest drought of the season has been just eight games, and he ended that in dramatic fashion with his two-goal night last Thursday against Atlanta. The Garden crowd chanted “We Want Thornton” for much of the third period, imploring Julien to give the tough guy extra shifts to try to complete the hat trick.
“Not too many people in their life get to hear their name chanted by 18,000 people,” Thornton said after the game. “It’s a very special feeling. The fans here obviously have been great. I’ve said that ever since I signed here. They’ve been unbelievable to me, but that’s obviously another level. I’m very appreciative of that.
“I’ve come a long way from my beginnings to that happening,” added Thornton.
A very long way indeed.