ZURICH-KLOTEN – Steve Yzerman, the general manager for Team Canada for the Vancouver Olympics, has made it clear he will play no favourites in selecting the team that represents Canada on home ice. He has also made it clear he wants players with skill and speed – and experience in winning. While the hockey being played right now at the World Championship in Switzerland and in North America in the Stanley Cup finals is not players’ final chance to impress, these games are important for assessing how they compete at the highest level under the greatest amount of non-Olympic pressure.
Which brings us to the enigma known as Joe Thornton, whose San Jose Sharks were just eliminated by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the aforementioned playoffs.
Thornton was only 17 when he played on Canada’s gold-medal winning U20 team in 1997. The next year he was drafted first overall by Boston and had one of the worst rookie seasons in the history of big-time players, scoring just three goals and seven total points in 55 games. It took him a lot longer to develop than most great 18-year-olds, but he has become a dominant power forward and one of the best offensive talents in the game – when there is no pressure.
But in 12 NHL seasons, his team has never made it past the second round of the playoffs, and the loss to Anaheim last night is particularly egregious. The Sharks finished first overall during the regular season, and Thornton had another great year with 86 points. The team had a new coach, a new attitude, and a plethora of quality players. Its elimination isn’t just a shock; it’s a blow to Thornton’s reputation.
Internationally, he was on Canada’s team that placed fifth at the 2001 World Championship, and he wasn’t chosen for the 2002 Olympics. He helped Canada win the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, and a year later he won a silver medal with Canada at the World Championship at the end of the lockout season, but in 2006 he was one of several big-name players who performed horribly at the Olympics in Turin en route to a worst-ever seventh-place finish.
Think of all the other players Yzerman is considering for Vancouver. Likely captain Jarome Iginla is a proven winner, from 2002, 2004, and on several occasions with the Flames. Sidney Crosby has been a winner all his life, as have goalies Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Rick Nash has U20 success and has been dominant during the many times he’s played for Canada at the World Championships.
Younger players such as Dion Phaneuf and Jonathan Toews have also been successful at every level. Potential Olympians who are here in Switzerland also have great track records, notably Shane Doan, Martin St. Louis, and Dany Heatley.
But Thornton’s play changes when the pressure is on. He puts too much pressure on himself, resulting not only in a diminished performance on his part but from his teammates as well. He takes on too much responsibility and tries to do too much. Yzerman might not be able to take a chance on Thornton for Vancouver. After all, he is blessed with a wealth of talent, and there is no pressure on him to select a player simply because of excellent regular-season statistics. Yzerman was one of the greatest players of all time, and he knows the difference between great stats and helping to bring victory to a team.
Of course, no player wins every time he play. Wayne Gretzky played 20 years and won “only” four Stanley Cups, but he was arguably the greatest player of all time and any coach would choose him for any team, any time, anywhere. Why? Because he was a winner and a leader.
Joe Thornton has been a winner, yes, but not very often and not when the spotlight has shined brightest. Phenomenal player? Absolutely. Leader and Olympian for 2010? Hmmm.