Plekanec, Thornton, Mikkelson say goodbye
by|06 NOV 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Andre Ringuette
Czechia’s Tomas Plekanec and two Canadians, Joe Thornton and Meaghan Mikkelson, have announced their retirement over the last several days, leaving a void in the game that will be difficult to fill.
Plekanec is one of the longest-serving Czech players of the 21st century, appearing for his country for the first time in 2000 at the U18 and for the last time at the IIHF Men’s World Championship in 2018. In all, he played in 17 IIHF tournaments for the Czechs, winning a gold at the 2001 IIHF World Juniors and three medals at the Men’s World Championship.
A native of Kladno, he started and ended his career with his hometown team in the Czech league, but in between he played 1,001 NHL games, all but 17 with the Montreal Canadiens. His path to the Habs, though, was not easy. Drafted 71st overall in 2001, he stayed one more season at home before coming to Canada to pursue a career in the NHL. However, he had to play three years in the AHL with the team’s affiliate in Hamilton before finally making the top club early in the 2005-06 season.
The Habs were eliminated early in that year’s playoffs, allowing Plekanec the chance to play in his first of what turned out to be eleven IIHF Men’s World Championships, in Riga, and 13 years in a row playing for his country. The team went all the way to the finals in ‘06, settling for a silver medal after a 4-0 loss to Sweden in the game for gold.
In his sophomore year with the Habs, Plekanec scored 20 goals for the first time, and over the course of his 14 years in the NHL he scored 233 goals in total. But it was for Czechia that he was best known, captaining the team at the 2012 and 2014 Men’s Worlds as well as at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
He also led the team to consecutive bronze medals in 2011 and 2012, finishing second in both goals (8) and points (10) in the former tournament. Known more as a leader and two-way player than superstar scorer, Plekanec made the players around him better. His dedication to the national team is rare.
Tomas Plekanec #14 of the Czech Republic leans in for the face-off during game action against Latvia at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
photo: © HHOF-IIHF-IOC
In the case of Thornton, he makes his retirement official at the age of 44, but he didn’t play all of last season. Nevertheless, he took to X (formerly Twitter) to make a comical announcement, bare chested and mammoth white beard dominating the camera: “Hey, judging by how many people keep asking me, I guess I have to tell you, I’m officially retired from the NHL.”
Still, “Jumbo Joe” can lay claim to three, age-based trivia facts over and above his Hall of Fame career. He was the last NHLer to have played in the 1990s; he was the last player to have played against Wayne Gretzky; and, he was the last player to play a game at Maple Leaf Gardens.
But more than that, he was a 1st overall draft choice who didn’t disappoint, not for his NHL teams, but for Team Canada in IIHF competition. He helped Canada win gold at the 1997 IIHF World Junior Championship, the team’s record-setting fifth gold in a row.
But after being drafted first by Boston later that year, Thornton famously managed only three goals in 55 games as a rookie, looking to be a draft bust of gigantic proportions. He developed in the coming years, however, but still not to the Bruins’ satisfaction, and they trade him to San Jose early in the 2005-06 season. Thornton exploded in California, averaging nearly two points a game the rest of the year, and he became the only player to this day to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies during a season with two teams.
Part of his development can be credited to the lockout the previous season. Thornton started the 2004-05 season by helping Canada win the title at the World Cup of Hockey, after which he went to Switzerland to play the full season. He helped Canada win the championship at the Spengler Cup on New Year’s Eve and then the Swiss championship with Davos later in the year. He and teammate Rick Nash then led Canada to silver at the 2005 Men’s Worlds.
Thornton also played for Canada at the 2006 Olympics (a disappointing 7th) and again in 2010, a gold medal on home ice. His last IIHF event was the 2016 World Cup, another victory for Canada. In the NHL, he played a whopping 1,714 regular-season games with the Bruins, Sharks, Leafs, and Panthers, over 24 seasons, becoming one of the greatest passers the game has known.
Joe Thornton #19 and Patrick Marleau celebrate after taking a 2-0 lead over Switzerland at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
photo: © HHOF-IIHF-IOC
Mikkelson’s departure was also not a surprise, because of time and circumstance, but her retirement does give one opportunity to reflect on another superstar career. The 38-year-old was recently hired as the Calgary Flames’ first female radio colour commentator, allowing her to ease into life away from the national team.
“In hindsight, I have learned that gratitude, humility, perseverance, and teamwork are the keys to success both on and off the ice,” she wrote in her retirement announcement. “Whether you succeed or fail, the most important thing to know is that you have given it your all, and with that, you’ll have no regrets.”
Indeed, she didn’t play at the 2023 IIHF Women’s World Championship, and her stellar play in 2022 was something of a miracle after she suffered a serious knee injury in May 2021. This also after having her second child in 2019 after winning a silver medal with Canada at the 2018 Olympics.
Mikkelson had previously won two Olympic gold medals, in 2010 and 2014, and she also played in eight IIHF Women’s Worlds with Canada, winning two gold and six silver. In 2011, she was named IIHF Directorate Best Defender. A defensive star, she played four years of NCAA hockey with the University of Wisconsin Badgers, winning two national championships and graduating with a business degree, which she will now turn into an MBA in retirement.
Mikkelson also played for the Edmonton Chimos of the WWHL early in her career; a career defined by determination, resilience, ambition, and skill. In the end, the last time Mikkelson wore the Team Canada sweater, she helped Canada win gold in 2022 in Denmark. After four years away from the game, she made the team and went out a winner.
Gold Medal Game - 2011 IIHF World Womens Championship
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation