|Shawn Thornton is excited about punching into work for the Bruins. (GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES)|
Tough act sure to follow
Thornton will add grit for Bruins this season
Toughness, in its many shapes and forms, was one of the Bruins' many missing ingredients in 2006-07. They were far too easy to push off the puck, and when it came time to engage in the sweet science, they were sweethearts and not bravehearts.
Enter Shawn Thornton, he of 2,468 penalty minutes in 9 1/2 American Hockey League seasons. The 30-year-old Thornton, who finally won regular NHL policing duty last season with the Cup-winning Ducks, joined the Bruins as a free agent July 1. Gregarious and well spoken (at least without a stick in his hands and with a heart rate taching below 120), he is expected to be the face of a revivified fist game when the puck drops in October.
"That was 10 years in the AHL -- make that 10 long years," said Thornton, lounging in a chair in the Bruins' offices last week as he and wife Erin took a break from the house-hunting grind. "A lot of guys, if they don't make it, leave for Europe after a few years. I probably would have left, too, but that's not my game. And you know, everyone thinks they can play forever."
Thornton, selected 190th in the 1997 draft by Toronto, played his first four pro seasons on "The Rock" -- Toronto's AHL affiliate in St. John's, Newfoundland. Swapped to the Blackhawks in September 2001, he spent the next five seasons dutifully pounding away in the minors, called up to Chicago for only 31 games, his big break not arriving until the Ducks signed him as free agent last summer.
"Great guy," said Ducks general manager Brian Burke. "Loves to fight . . . and for the right reasons, sticks up for his teammates."
But when it came time to re-up, the Ducks offered the 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pounder only a one-year deal. Both the Blackhawks and Sharks had interest in signing him, too, said Thornton, but the job search ended abruptly when Boston called with a three-year deal guaranteed to pay him $1.55 million.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has seen him play a number of times and was impressed to the point that he tried to acquire him from the Ducks at the February trading deadline.
"That's kind of flattering," said Thornton.
"With both Thornton and [Jeremy] Reich in our lineup," noted Chiarelli, "we might not have that premier heavyweight. But we've got two great middleweights who'll go with anyone."
Thornton recalled the night the Ducks clinched the Cup with their Game 5 win over Ottawa.
"We were both giddy, like a couple of school kids," said Thornton of he and teammate Brad May. "We were like, 'OK, do we leave our gloves and helmets on the bench, or just throw 'em on the ice?' I can't really put into words how all that felt. They were just the longest and best three minutes of my life. And the Cup, after the game it was just the lightest thing, and the next day, just weird how heavy it was."
No relation to the NHL's other Thorntons, ex-Bruin Joe or his cousin, Scott, the new Bruins winger grew up in Oshawa, Ontario, and played his junior hockey in Peterborough. Prior to turning pro out of junior, he joined his father at the local steel mill, where Mark Thornton works. The job: culling defects from stack upon stack of steel rods.
"They called it, 'flipping bars,' " he recalled. "The rods were all 20-60 feet long, and you'd stand at one end of the pile, with your partner at the other end, and you'd just keep flipping through them by hand, one after the other, all day long. Tough job. But it paid $23 an hour, and as a student, that wasn't bad money."
The job these days has Thornton taking on shorter stacks, customers who can run to about 6-6, but they're not nearly as compliant as those steel rods. Take, for instance, longtime NHL heavyweight George Laraque, 6-3 and 245 pounds, still one of the game's toughest customers.
"I bet we've fought 4-5 times," recalled Thornton. "I've got great respect for him -- an honest, tough player."
And like goal scorers, who hold up the likes of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby as their idols, the game's fighters have their heroes, too.
"I have to say, in Chicago, it was a pleasure to room with Bob Probert," said Thornton, conjuring up the name of one of the game's legendary tough guys. "I mean, my years with Toronto, I roomed sometimes with Mats Sundin -- great guy. But when Probie walked in my room, I was there with the clicker, flipping through the channels, and it was like, 'Whoa, that's Bob Probert.' Just one of the nicest guys I ever played with, too."
The fight game won't be exclusively Thornton's with the Bruins. Reich, ostensibly a one-man rodeo last season, proved himself a willing contender.
"He'll give us that toughness," said coach Claude Julien, when asked about Thornton's role. "We want to be tougher and harder to play against, on the road and in our own building. We want to be a respected team, and not get pushed around."
Tim Thomas and Finnish prospect Tuukka Rask spent most of last week in Calgary under the watchful eye of Bob Essensa, the Bruins' netminding coach.
"The only two goalies in camp," said Essensa Wednesday, amid a golfing break in picturesque Banff, Alberta. "They saw a ton of shots."
Hannu Toivonen originally was scheduled to make the trip, but he became an ex-Bruin days before camp commenced with the deal that sent him to St. Louis for Swedish prospect Carl Soderberg. New Bruin Manny Fernandez, who initially expressed an interest in joining Essensa and Co., in the end opted to remain home in Montreal.
"We thought it best not to push it," said Essensa, who runs the camp with business partner Eli Wilson. "He's coming off the knee injury, and he's got a camp scheduled for later in the summer with Francois Allaire.
Thomas and Rask traveled together from Boston, an itinerary that had the goalies switch flights in Montreal. They landed in great shape, but not their gear. Rask arrived sans leg pads, and the two had to share Thomas's the first day.
"Tuukka's 6-2, and that's a little taller than me," said the 5-foot-11-inch Thomas. "But it wasn't any problem. My pads are a little long for me, which meant they were just a little short for Tuukka."
Thomas and Rask worked out a few times in Boston before the trip, but this was the first time the two had been able to spend any quality time together.
"Great guy," said Thomas. "I don't know what it is about Finland, but they sure put out quality people. I always get along with those guys."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.