Planted seeds of hard work

Thornton's blue-collar approach refined in an Ontario steel mill

Bruin Shawn Thornton was a visitor last week, but in the summer of 1997 he was a worker at a steel plant. Bruin Shawn Thornton was a visitor last week, but in the summer of 1997 he was a worker at a steel plant. (Jason Liebregts/For the Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / July 20, 2008

WHITBY, Ontario - His summer job in the steel mill was hard, physically challenging, and sometimes brutally hot. Molten steel rods, some 60 feet long and 780 pounds, would arrive at his spot in the warehouse at temperatures of around 800 degrees, so hot, Shawn Thornton recalled the other day, that one day the soles of his boots dissolved while he swept the floor around the cooling beds.

"They melted right down to the steel lining," Thornton said last week, during his first visit back to the Gerdau Ameristeel plant since working there in the summer of 1997. "Hey, we were kids . . . what did we know?"

Thornton, who will turn 31 Wednesday, will return for a second season with the Bruins in 2008-09. His summer in the mill didn't turn him into an NHLer, but it helped shape him, steel him, for a journey that at times made him wonder if he would ever make it out of minor league rinks, be free of overnight bus rides.

"Like 20 hours from Saint John, New Brunswick, to Norfolk, Va.," said Thornton, the scrapping winger who signed with Boston as a free agent last summer. "That's when you're thinking, 'What the hell am I doing here?' "

Not that he didn't enjoy the minors, mind you, because as careers go, playing hockey is a decent alternative to flipping through an endless conveyance of steel bars, culling out the bent and twisted pieces, careful that the razor sharp ends don't slice through protective gloves. In mill parlance, Thornton that summer was a "flipper," hired to eyeball defective steel rods and yank them for disposal.

Once removed, the defective bars had to be destroyed, which had Thornton trading in his crowbar-like rod extractor for a torch hot enough to cut through steel. The rods, in lengths of 20, 40, and 60 feet, were methodically diced into 2-3-foot pieces, then heaved into a recycling bin.

"We'd turn our hardhats around backwards for that job," said Thornton. "The theory was, with the bill of the hat turned backwards, it would deflect the sparks from going down the back of your shirt. That was the theory, anyway . . . but trust me, it didn't always work out that way."

Three generations of Thorntons have worked the Brazilian-owned Gerdau plant, which opened in 1964. Gerald Thornton, Shawn's grandfather, worked in the plant for 17 years before retiring in the '90s, not long before his grandson's gig. Mark Thornton, Shawn's 51-year-old father, is still on the job after 34 years. Last week, with great pride, he led a family tour through the plant, taking advantage of the mill's two-week summer shutdown.

"That job was a guaranteed workout for Shawn," recalled his father. "The heavy part of the job was a good thing for him. He'd go home feeling good after eight hours of flippin' bars, I'll tell you that. Did he ever get in shape that summer."

No surprise, hockey also played a key role in determining Shawn's shift assignment that summer. So did fighting, then and now perhaps his No. 1 playing strength. The mill is a 24/7 operation, with many workers assigned three 12-hour shifts, followed by two days off, followed by three more 12-hour shifts. The young Thornton was eager to earn $21 an hour that summer, but not so eager to be left at the whim of the scheduler maker, who could choose between day and overnight shifts. Thornton much preferred a "straight days," Monday-Friday schedule, and was eager to sign on when his father presented him with that possibility. Only one hitch: He would have to fight for it.

"Not fight another guy at the mill," explained Thornton. "It was another player - Jeff Ware."

Thornton in the season of 1996-97 played for Peterborough in the Ontario Hockey League, and Ware, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound defenseman, for Oshawa. Unlike Thornton, the 190th overall pick by the Maple Leafs in the '97 draft, Ware was a highly touted first-rounder, chosen 15th by Toronto in 1995. One of the Gerdau supervisors, said Thornton, had a particular dislike for both Ware and the Oshawa Generals, and offered Thornton straight days if he: 1. beat Ware in a fight and 2. did it at the Generals' home rink.

Done . . . done . . . and come summer, Gerdau's newest Thornton began working straight days.

"That was the same summer I got drafted, and then signed with Toronto," said Thornton, proudly pointing to a small shed where he took a phone call on the day he learned his then-agent negotiated his first pro contract. "Funny, but [Ware] and I were both in Leafs camp and ended up rooming together that fall. Good guy. I told him about the deal at the mill, but to be honest I can't remember what he said about it . . . don't think he was too happy, though."

Today's NHL rosters are comprised of players from many countries, all walks of life, but the trend for the last quarter-century or more has been away from blue-collar, hard-working, late-round picks making it to the show. Far more typical, especially in North America, is the young star, fast-tracked nearly from the time of puberty, who is selected in the first or second round, his game refined by year-round amateur hockey. There are still kids who get dirty, work summer and/or part-time jobs, and make it to the NHL. But Thornton is far more the exception these days.

"He comes from a working family, and he learned from early on that he'd have to work - that's the way it is," said Mark Thornton, who only stopped playing hockey in his mid-40s when an errant puck knocked out nearly all his teeth and left him sipping meals through a straw for two weeks. "Good for him to know where he's come from, you know?"

According to his father, Thornton has always loved hockey, and even more, the work that goes with it.

"Over the years, GMs would call the house in the summer, and he'd never be home," said Mark Thornton. "Usually, he was at the gym. They'd call at 8 in the morning, and we'd say, 'No, not home, he's at the gym.' They'd call at noon, same thing. Six at night, same thing, 'No, at the gym.' One GM called one day, for like the fifth time, and he said, 'I've got first-round picks that don't work that hard!' I didn't know what to say, other than, 'Hey, we're not lying to you; if he was here, he'd talk - but he's at the gym.' "

As jobs go, the summer steel job was not Thornton's toughest. The money was great, so good in fact that he promised Leafs management that summer that he would report to camp in great shape if they didn't make him pull off the Gerdau job to attend a rookie development camp. He had his heart set on buying a car, and he needed that $1,000 per week more than he needed a skating tuneup. He stayed on the job and drove to camp that fall in his new black Chevy Cavalier.

His toughest job, said Thornton, was three years working for a graphic arts company that printed McDonald's flyers.

"The flyers came down the line, nonstop," he said. "It's the worst. You stand there for hours, going as fast as you can go. Just monotonous."

Thornton's visit to the mill had him reconnecting with old friends and bosses, including Earl Draper, another Gerdau veteran of 34 years who was Thornton's shift manager in the summer of '97.

"Great worker," said Draper. "We used to hire a lot of kids then, maybe 6-7 a shift, and some of them you'd have to chase. Not Shawn. And he sure bulked up that summer he was with us. Flipping bars all day long, that's like going to the gym for eight hours."

Paul Robichaud, 55, was on the job last week, as he has been at Gerdau for 36 years. Shawn was near his father's corner office when Robichaud came around the corner, nearly giddy that his grimy white hardhat sported the CH logo of the Montreal Canadiens.

"What the hell's wrong with your hat?" chided the Bruin.

Robichaud, not the least bit apologetic, offered up only false bewilderment.

"Hey," said Thornton, "I wish it was [the Bruins logo] . . . but a hockey fan's a hockey fan, I guess."

Thornton turned in his visitor's yellow hard hat, goggles, and coat. He shook more hands, signed autographs, wished friends well, and soon was in a car, making his way by the guard shack. The life he knew for a summer was again in his rearview mirror.

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