Editor's note: NESN.com is running a five-part series on Shawn Thornton this week. This is Part V. Part IV looked at his career revitalization.
Shawn Thornton was a Stanley Cup champion, but he didn't have any security in the NHL.
But after helping the Anaheim Ducks win the title in 2007 and hitting the free-agent market that summer, Thornton did have options. The best of which brought him to Boston. Or at least it did once Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli finally got a hold of Thornton on July 1.
"I was actually at a fishing tournament," Thornton said. "I don't fish, but I was doing a charity thing, and they couldn't get a hold of me until 3 in the afternoon, might have been even later than that. I don't think they were very happy that I was fishing on July 1 when the team was trying to get a hold of me. So I got off the boat — we won the fishing tournament, by the way — and I jumped in my car and drove straight to my agent's office and signed the contract, then went home and celebrated."
The Bruins' pitch beat out offers from Chicago and San Jose, with Thornton earning a one-way deal with guaranteed NHL money for the first time on a three-year deal with Boston.
"They were both at two years and Peter stepped up and said three years and I said, 'Perfect. I'm sick of moving around,'" Thornton said. "It seemed like a good fit. Cam [Neely] called and told me what the city was all about and the passion that it has, the kind of players they embrace and it was all good."
Thornton's temperament on the ice and personality off it made him a natural fit in Boston, but Thornton didn't know anything about his new city when he signed. He had never even played a game in Boston, and visited the city just once, taking the train down from Lowell during his AHL days.
"I was lost," Thornton said. "That was the first impression. We came in August for a long weekend. We came and looked at 30 places in three days. I couldn't believe I was going to live here. I didn't know left from right. All these roads run in different directions. I'm used to a grid. I didn't know what's going on.
"I didn't know how this city would take us in," Thornton added. "I don't think you could ever expect the appreciation everybody has given us here."
It did take a little time for Thornton to win over the locals, especially in the Charlestown neighborhood where he and his wife, Erin, finally found a place they liked.
"I remember walking into the Warren Tavern for the first time and feeling out of place," Thornton said. "I don't anymore obviously, but I remember sitting down and trying to get a beer and it took about 20 minutes. They definitely knew that I was not from here. But now they sponsor a hole at my golf tournament. I'm fully entwined in the community, which is great."
Thornton did have some strange encounters with his new neighbors at first, as the telltale signs of life as a hockey enforcer can be a little unsettling to the uninitiated.
"I'm good friends with one of my neighbors now, but I used to see her in the mornings walking her dog and I always had black eyes or cuts," Thornton recalled. "I guess she went back to her husband and said, 'I don't know who this idiot is that lives over there but the guy's always got shiners. He looks like some meathead.' But we've become good friends, but I'm sure that was most people's take on me when I first moved in."
Painful setbacks pave way for bigger and better things
Throughout his career, Thornton has had to deal with preconceptions about what a player in his role can do on the ice as well. But coming to the Bruins proved a fresh start in that regard as well.
"The one thing that surprised me was the way he played the game," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who came to Boston the same year as Thornton. "You see a lot of guys that come into the league that are enforcers and their ice time is minimized because that's their strength and the main thing they do. But with Shawn, we've been able to play him regularly and he brings a lot."
For the first time in his career, Thornton was also playing a lot. He missed 20 games with a broken foot in his first season in Boston, but otherwise was a near permanent fixture in the lineup.
"I was coming off a high obviously coming from Anaheim," Thornton said. "I was having fun being here, just knowing I was in the NHL full-time for the first time. Even in Anaheim I was still walking on eggshells until about March when they told me to get a place, and even then I didn't know if I was going to be in and out of the lineup. But here it seemed that I was pretty consistently in the lineup, which I was very happy with."
That first year ended with a Game 7 loss to Montreal in the opening round, but it was a huge leap forward for the franchise. The Bruins returned to the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout, pushed the top-seeded Habs to seven games and put themselves back on the Boston sports map with a memorable Game 6 victory that had the new Garden rocking like nothing heard since the original Garden stood on Causeway Street.
"That was exciting," Thornton said. "Game 6 was the loudest I ever heard this building."
Thornton's second year was even better, as he set career highs with 6-5-11 totals in 79 games and the Bruins finished first in the East. That spring ended in disappointment as well, with the Bruins falling in overtime to Carolina in Game 7 in the second round after sweeping Montreal.
"My second year, I really thought we had a team that could have done some special things," Thornton said. "It was disappointing we didn't. I'm still disappointed that we didn't. But we had a really good bunch of guys, a good group of leaders. I thought we could have gone all the way that year. We didn't, but I felt things were going in the right direction."
There would be one more devastating setback before the Bruins would break through. For the third straight year the Bruins were eliminated in a Game 7, but this time it came after Boston led the Flyers 3-0 in the series and 3-0 at home in the final game. It was a loss that would haunt the Bruins, but also propelled them to last year's championship.
"It sucked," Thornton said. "We were being reminded of it nonstop around here, which didn't help the situation. But it was a learning experience. It's over now and it helped us become the team that won the Stanley Cup. Who knows if we would have won it if we hadn't gone through that. It's a positive now.
"I think both years we got a little complacent to tell you the truth," Thornton added. "We got a little comfortable and it snuck up and bit us in the butt. It definitely helped coming into last year. It was a learning experience. We had enough core guys that were around for that and learned that you couldn't be that way if you wanted to be successful. It definitely helped this past year. We closed out teams when we had to this year."
Bringing the Cup back to Boston
Thornton's frustrations in the 2009-10 season began long before the collapse against Philadelphia. He went from a career-high six goals in 2008-09 to just one the following season. Even worse, that goal came in the second game of the year, and he didn't score another in the final 72 games of the regular season and all 12 playoff games he appeared in. He did have a career-high 21 fighting majors, almost half of the team's total of 47.
"Pucks just weren't going in," Thornton said. "And with Looch [Milan Lucic] getting hurt, I had to do a lot of the fighting and I wasn't able to focus as much on playing in some games. We weren't winning games like we were the previous year, either. I wasn't worried about forchecking. I was worried about trying to get us going. I don't know if that was the right way to go about it, but it was all I knew how to do at that point was to go out and get in a fight to try to get the team going."
Thornton never complains about performing his pugilistic duties, but he does admit it is a little easier when there are a few guys to share that load. That was the case last year, when Thornton again led the team with 14 fights, but he had plenty of help as the Bruins finished with 71 as a team.
"I don't mind fighting," Thornton said. "I'll go out and fight whenever I need to. It's my job and I put it on me anyways, but it's a nice things when you have someone like Adam McQuaid or Looch to help. Or Soupy [Gregory Campbell], he would be like, 'I got it. I'm grabbing this guy' and he'd try to get the team going. Then the next shift I can focus on playing instead of being in the box for five minutes."
With some extra help in the fighting department, Thornton was able to contribute more in other areas. He shattered his career highs across the board with 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points. The increased scoring and reduced fighting made things a little easier on his family as well.
"I watch him all the time," Christine Thornton, Shawn's mother, said. "Sometimes I get nervous, depending on how big the other person is when it comes to the fighting. My husband laughs at that. But the majority of the time I can watch him. I remember when he used to fight Georges Laraque, I'd yell do this and do that. He can't hear me of course.
"It's not that I'm cheering him to fight, but you hope he wins," she added. "You want him to wind up on top, not the bottom, right? You want him to win the fight, or at least to get through it without any damage. That is part of his job and he accepts that. You just hope that he wins."
Last year's offensive breakthrough gave the Thornton clan something else to cheer about.
"All the way coming up, he used to score quite a bit, so I know he can score," Christine said. "And some of them were really nice goals too, weren't they? I see even his little moves are getting fancier."
Thornton's mother had even more to cheer about when she came to Boston to watch Games 3 and 4 of the Cup Final — "the two they won" she quickly points out — in person. Thornton returned to the lineup in Game 3 after being a healthy scratch for seven games, and he immediately provided a spark with his physical play. The Garden crowd responded by chanting his name after he belted Alexandre Burrows with a hit on his first shift.
"What a weird feeling it was when they were cheering him coming back on the ice," Christine said. "That was weird. When it's your kid, that's something you don't ever forget."
Christine also made some noise of her own in the seats, letting a group of Canucks fans know just how the two games in Boston were going to go before Game 3 even started.
"There were 10 Vancouver guys in front of me for both games, the same guys," she said. "They didn't know who I was. They were really nice guys actually. I told them it was too bad that they wasted all their money on the flight and everything because they were going to see their team lose. I told them, 'I'm here for Games 3 and 4 now and this is going to be a brand new series by the time Game 4 is done. I'm just telling you now, so be prepared.'"
Boston rolled to 8-1 and 4-0 victories to even the series, and Thornton helped make sure the Bruins stayed prepared throughout the rest of the series. He and linemates Daniel Paille and Campbell set the tone early in Game 7 with an aggressive forecheck that put the Canucks on their heels.
"You just have to look back at Game 7 of the Finals," Julien said. "Those guys were on the ice a lot in the first period because they gave us energy. They gave us momentum. They kept Vancouver hemmed in their own end. They were a big part in our success in Game 7. They got the ball rolling, and Thorty was a big part of that."
The Bruins capped their remarkable playoff run with a 4-0 win in that Game 7 showdown, and for the second time in five years Thornton was hoisting the Cup with the knowledge that he had played a key role in the victory.
"I think our line had been pretty consistent all playoffs," Thornton said. "We did what we had to do. There wasn't a lot of goals scored, but we were physical and created momentum and forced teams to play in our own end. I think in that first period we had more shifts than anybody by the end of it. Piesy and Soupy were flying. They were unbelievable. To be part of a game that clinches you a Stanley Cup, it doesn't get much better than that, right?"
A future in Boston?
The one thing that might be better would be doing it again. Thornton would certainly like to stick around to try. He's entering the final year of his second contract with the Bruins, but would love to sign another deal to finish his career in Boston. And that's a career he plans to extend for a while.
"As long as I can," Thornton, 34, said. "I pride myself on being in good shape. Knock on wood injury-wise, I think if I stay healthy I can play another three or four years and be effective for another three or four years. I'm still hungry. I still love the game and still have a passion for it. I'll play as long as I can.
Thornton isn't sure what the future holds when his playing days are over, though he'd like to stay involved in hockey.
"I have not made up my mind there," Thornton said. "I've dabbled a bit in doing the stuff on TV and radio. I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm going to have to do something though. I can't sit around. Coaching, I enjoy that part too, but I really don't know. I'll try not to think about it until the day they tell me I can't put those skates on anymore."
Thornton has thought about one aspect of life after hockey. He's made a home here in Boston, and hopes he never has to leave.
"Who knows what's going to happen contract-wise," Thornton said. "Obviously I'd like to stay here and finish my career here. We love this city. We've fully embraced it. We have a lot of friends here outside of hockey. We can't see ourselves going anywhere else."
Thornton's early years
Thornton develops in juniors
Thornton gets first taste of NHL