Shawn Thornton’s Early Years Include Strong Family Support, a Fortuitous Broken Arm, Chance Sighting by Scout


Oct 3, 2011

Shawn Thornton's Early Years Include Strong Family Support, a Fortuitous Broken Arm, Chance Sighting by ScoutEditor's note: is running a five-part series on Shawn Thornton this week. Part I looks at his early years.

It's a description the opponents he chirps with on a nightly basis might have some trouble accepting.

The teammates accustomed to his nonstop chatter in the locker room might find it hard to believe, as well.

Certainly the reporters who have filled their notebooks and recorders with his colorful quotes might have their doubts.

But Christine Thornton insists her son wasn't always the loquacious personality he's become. In fact, her first response when asked what Shawn Thornton was like as a child revealed a polar opposite to the image he has forged in his time with the Bruins.

"He was quiet," Christine Thornton said. "He was always a quiet boy."

The referees who have handed out 3,086 penalty minutes to Thornton over the course of his first 14 professional seasons might be equally stunned by the rest of Mrs. Thornton's memories of Shawn's youth.

"He was a good boy," she said. "He didn't sleep a lot, but I never had any trouble with him. He didn't like to be yelled at. My husband wouldn't yell, he would just change the voice. [Make it] a little deeper, and oh my God. That's all you had to do with him. My daughter used to laugh at my husband when he did that, but Shawn just used to freeze."

Thornton's obedience may have cost him a bit in learning some hockey fundamentals in his early years. Little things like the fact that games are actually three periods long.

"When he was little I used to lie and tell him the game was over after the second period to get him to bed," Christine Thornton said with a laugh.

So how did this quiet, well-behaved lad grow up to be the vocal and emotional leader of the Stanley Cup champion Bruins?

Oshawa origins
The story began in Oshawa, Ontario, an industrial city about an hour's drive from Toronto. Oshawa was a factory town, a rough place not for the faint of heart. But it was also a solid community with hard-working, tight-knit families when Mark and Christine Thornton welcomed their first child to the world on July 23, 1977.

"It was blue collar," Shawn Thornton said of Oshawa. "It's a tough town. It really is. You learn to take care of yourself at an early age. At the time there was two GM factories, a factory that did the bumpers on cars, then a steel factory right next door, and a Chrysler plant one town over where my grandmother worked her whole life. So it was very blue collar, that's probably the best way to describe it."

Mark Thornton started working in the steel factory when he was still a teenager, while Christine Thornton also worked to support a family, which soon grew to include Shawn's youngster sister, Kathleen.

"They both worked in factories," Shawn Thornton said. "My mom worked in a hospital for a long time. They're both on shift work."

Thornton himself spent a summer in the steel factory before turning pro. That was long enough to make him determined to carve out a career in hockey by any means necessary.

"I said I'd never go back," Thornton said of the steel factory. "It helped motivate me, that's for sure. There are no easy jobs there. We just lifted steel bars all day, from 7 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon. If you were lucky you got to work overtime."

That wasn't even the worst job Thornton had as a youngster. That dubious distinction fell to his stint in a graphic arts factory during the summer when he was 15 to 18, stacking bundles of fliers for eight hours a day with just two five-minute breaks and a 15-minute lunch.

"That was straight midnights, all summer, every summer, 5-6 nights a week," Thornton said. "It was the worst job I ever had in my life. It was hell. But I paid for my own hockey. My parents needed help, so I did it. I paid for my own hockey, my own equipment. The job sucked, but it probably made me a better person in the long run."

Late start on the ice
While Thornton got an early start in the working world, he was behind most of his peers in hockey. He didn't begin playing until he was 7, several years later than most Canadian kids.

"You could probably tell that by the way I skate," Thornton joked.

"My parents never forced me into it, never pushed me," Thornton added. "My friends were into it, so one day I went to my dad and said I wanted to do it. Everyone was light years ahead of me because everyone starts at 3 or 4 years old up there."

There are some strong athletic genes in Thornton's family. A cousin on his mother's side, Christopher Brunt, is the captain of West Bromwich Albion of the English Premier League, one of the top soccer leagues in the world. Two other cousins, William Ryan Greer and Zack Greer, play for the Edmonton Rush in the National Lacrosse League.

Thornton's father played hockey in beer leagues and a league within his steel factory until just three years ago, when he hung up the skates after reconstructive surgery after taking a puck to the face.

Still, Thornton's parents never pressured him to play, but they did everything they could to support him once he started. Despite their arduous work schedules, they always found a way to get young Shawn to the rink. Christine Thornton took on the bulk of the chauffeur duties, but there were always others willing to pitch in.

"My grandparents on my father's side took me a lot, too, but it was mostly my mom," Shawn said. "It was a pretty good community though, too. Parents switched off a lot. It was never a real problem getting to the rink."

Of course, there may have been a bit of an ulterior motive involved there, as driving Shawn to hockey was better than at least one of the alternatives.

"It used to be a big battle for my parents who used to have to watch my sister figure skate and who got to watch me play hockey," Shawn Thornton said. "Figure skating is not that exciting."

A fortunate break
Figure skating may not have been as exciting, but it was safer, especially for a kid who got a late start in learning to skate.

"He started in the church league when he was about 7 and a half," Christine Thornton said. "He was a little later than a lot of the kids. He didn't know how to stop when we started then."

Thornton's refusal to stop no matter what obstacles were put in his way would eventually pay for him in his pro career, but being unable to apply the brakes proved a bit more painful as a youngster.

Looking to keep the then-9-year-old Shawn occupied in the summer, the Thorntons enrolled him in Roger Neilson's hockey school.

"He didn't go to hockey school to become a great player," Christine Thornton said. "He went so I knew he'd be OK for two weeks."

That plan backfired a bit, as Shawn didn't make it through the first day of drills.

"Because he had started [hockey] late, my husband was still doing up his skates," Christine recalled. "Now he goes to the hockey school and I asked if he was going to be all right and Mark said, 'Oh yeah, I showed him.' So he gets on the ice first thing in the morning, and I get a call in work. The coach had told them to go all out and skate as fast as they could right to the end and stop. And I guess his skate wasn't done up quite right, and he went into the boards and broke his arm, then went down and broke it again. So he had two breaks on his arm. So there's the poor kid on his first day at his first time at hockey school with an arm broken in two places."

It wasn't until August that Thornton was just starting to get his arm moving again, but the injury did nothing to deter his budding love for the game of hockey. So his parents set about looking for a place where he could play.

"A guy in Mark's work told us about a AAA team that had ice, so we figured it would be good just to get him back on the ice and moving again," Christine Thornton said.

What started as just a way to get Shawn active again turned into an opportunity, as he ended up making that AAA team, "which shocked us to be quite honest" Christine Thornton joked.

"And it was his speed back then, believe it or not," she added. "So that's how he got into AAA, because of the broken arm. That's the only reason he ended up where he ended up, because he still would have been in the church league. Things happen for a reason I guess."

That fresh start wasn't the only good to come out of Shawn's broken arm.

"He got the next year free at Roger Neilson's school," Christine Thornton added with a laugh.

Early setbacks and a chance encounter
Not everything went perfectly for Thornton, though, even after he made it to AAA. The memory of being cut from a minor bantam team when he was 13 still stings when he discusses it, and there were other setbacks as well.

"I was always the last kid to make the team, the last kid picked," Thornton said. "I was never projected to go anywhere. I never got invited to any of those under-17 camps or under-16. There's six guys off my team every year that would go, but I was never one of them. I didn't know what I was going to do, to tell you the truth. Junior kind of fell in my lap and pro definitely fell in my lap. It took hard work to get there, but I never envisioned moving on in hockey."

There were some signs present, though. Times when Thornton's untapped potential was able to shine through.

"He spent two years in Midget, and we went out to the big Midget tournament out in Calgary," Christine Thornton said. "He played the best hockey I've ever seen him play in his whole life. He won the shootout contest, and he's got the buckle to prove it."

Prized belt buckles aside, it still took a bit of luck to get Thornton to the junior ranks and in a position to make hockey his career.

Not long after the tournament in Calgary, Thornton's team was in another tournament in Hull, Quebec, when things took a nasty turn as a line brawl broke out.

"Somebody had run my goalie, some kid who had been sent down from Quebec Major Junior who was supposed to be a tough guy," Thornton recalled. "Everybody kind of just stared at him, so I had to step up and ended up fighting him. There's not too many times in my life where I say I beat the bag out of somebody, but I hurt the kid and the GM for the Peterborough Petes just happened to be in the stands that game scouting somebody else and started asking around and ended up drafting me."

That Peterborough GM was Jeff Twohey, who's currently an amateur scout with the Phoenix Coyotes after spending three decades with the Petes. Twohey was in the midst of another long day on the road scouting for Peterborough when Thornton caught his eye with his performance in that fight.

"I was there all day and it had been a long day, but there was a team that I wanted to see that was in the last game of the night," Twohey said. "So it was late at night, most of the scouts had left, and I had to sit through a game prior to the game I wanted to watch.

"Really it was a terrible game," Twohey added. "Shawn was on the Oshawa team and his team was getting killed. They weren't very good. Late in the game one of the kids on the Montreal team ran over the Oshawa goalie, then proceeded to skate in front of the Oshawa bench and taunt them. I can't remember if Shawn came off the bench or if he was already on the ice, but he grabbed this kid and really gave it to him in a fight. I was like, 'Holy —-.' It kind of caught my eye."

Christine Thornton played a role in getting Twohey's attention, as well. She remembers being nervous when she saw Shawn stepping up to take on the Montreal tough guy.

"Shawn ended up going out and beating him up, with his mother hiding behind her friend," she said. "That kid was huge. I thought my kid was crazy."

Twohey recalls Thornton's mother being a little more confident in her son's ability to handle himself.

"What's interesting was that there was a lady beside me, and she seemed to be really getting into the fight and I looked at her and said, 'Geez, that kid looks like he knows how to fight,'" Twohey said. "She kind of looked at me and said, 'He's never been beat.' I asked if she knew that kid, and she said, 'That's my boy.'"

Thornton would soon be Twohey's boy, as well, as Peterborough took him in the next OHL draft. That chance encounter set the stage for the rest of Thornton's remarkable journey to a pair of Stanley Cup championships.

"It was an accident," Twohey said. "I wish I could say I picked him right out when I saw him and I knew he was going to be a player, but from the time that I saw that [fight] and I interacted with his mother and his father and got to know Shawn, you could just tell there was something about him that was different — in a good way. There was determination. There was legit toughness. And there was determination to be a player. All we did really was give him the opportunity, and Shawn took it from there."

For Part II, click here.

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