COLUMBUS – Joe Thornton is big and strong and has hands of silk. During the first decade of the 21st century he was a mainstay with Team Canada, but he hasn’t donned the maple leaf sweater since the 2010 Olympics.
No matter. His incredible consistency in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks means he is never far from Hockey Canada’s thoughts, and when he got the call to play at the 2016 World Cup, he was delighted but not caught off guard.
“I had a good year last year,” Thornton agreed after last night’s Canada-United States exhibition tilt before a near-sellout crowd at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. “I wasn’t planning on coming, but I wasn’t surprised that I made it either. It’s one of those things that when you get the opportunity, you jump. It’s exciting.”
That “good year” of which he speaks was actually a sensational year. He finished fourth in league scoring with 82 points, only three behind Sidney Crosby. Some 63 of those points were assists. Only Ottawa’s Swedish defenceman Erik Karlsson had more helpers in 2015/16 (66).
Thornton can look back at two highlights in his international career which bear on his invitation in 2016. First, he is one of only 12 players playing in 2016 who also appeared in the 2004 World Cup. Second, his first experience with Team Canada came with current coach Mike Babcock’s first taste of international coaching with Canada.
“Me and Babs have a long history,” Thornton enthused. “The 1997 World Juniors was his first international experience, and it was mine as well. It was in Geneva, Switzerland and we won gold, so it kick-started both of our careers, I think.”
And what makes Babcock tick? Here is a coach who has been behind the bench of IIHF events four times – and won gold each time. “He has a brilliant mind,” Thornton continued. “That’s all you can say. He has a passion for the game, and knows the game, and he’s always trying to do new things. But his mind has always worked with his passion. It’s contagious for his players.”
Thornton played his first senior IIHF event at the 2001 World Championship. He later played at the aforementioned 2004 World Cup, then the 2005 Worlds and the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.
Canada finished fifth in 2001 but defeated Finland 3-2 in the finals of the 2004 World Cup. Thornton played the entire lockout year of 2004/05 with Davos in the Swiss league before joining Canada at the Worlds in Austria, the team falling to the Czechs, 3-0, in the gold-medal game. Thornton was named tournament MVP for his sensational play.
The 2006 Olympics were a great disappointment for all of Canada, but four years later Thornton was part of Canada’s historic home gold. Between that year and this, he hasn’t donned the red and white sweater once, and at age 37, PyeongChang might seem a remote possibility in two years’ time.
“I think day to day,” Thornton said with a smile. “We’ll see what tomorrow brings. I’ve always been short term.”
In his 15 years of senior play, Thornton sees a consistency to his play with the various teams of which he has been a part. “I think my role has been pretty similar – shut down guy, momentum guy. I’ve played in some World Championships where maybe I’ve been the go-to guy, but for me I have to come in and compete hard.”
Over the course of his 18-year NHL career, Thornton has 964 assists and 1,341 career points, incredible numbers which will get him into the Hockey Hall of Fame in due course. He was the first overall draft pick by Boston in 1997 after an outstanding two-year junior career with Sault Ste. Marie, but his rookie season with the Bruins was a disaster. He managed a mere three goals and four assists in 55 games.
Very quickly, though, he developed into a superior passer, an odd route to success for a big guy. “Throughout my early days I was more of a scorer,” he agreed, “but then when I came to the NHL, one of the guys I really learned from was Jason Allison, who was probably the premier centre at the time. I watched him, and my game evolved through that, using my big body, keeping my head up. I spent a lot of time working on it.”
Because his skill set is so specific, Thornton sees a big difference between the small (NHL) ice and the big (European) sheet. “With the big ice, for passers, you have so much more time. It’s a nice luxury to have. But I’m used to the NHL ice and have played on it for so long. In Europe, you have more time to think, more passing lanes, because it’s that much bigger. But ether way, it’s still hockey. That’s how I see it.”
This year’s World Cup features many first overall draft choices over the last decade and more. Thornton is the only one who did so poorly in his first year before reaching the pinnacle, and he sees a big difference between his generation of top players and the kids of today, namely Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
“I didn’t train in a gym at all until I was 18 years old,” he explained. “That was the first time I worked out, was after my first year in Boston. They said, ‘you have to use the gym.’ Now, kids are working out at a young age. I was probably 6’4”, 180 lbs. when I first came to the league. Now I’m 225 lbs. That’s why the kids today can jump into the league right away, which is good for them, good for the fans, good for the game.”
Now, one of the oldest players at this year’s World Cup, Thornton will “play his game.” He’ll look pass first, work hard every shift, and hope his contribution will help Canada to a defence of a title it won in 2004 when he was a 25-year-old in he prime of his career. Tempus fugit.