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California state of mind

Easygoing Thornton is right at home in San Jose

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / February 9, 2009
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SAN JOSE, Calif. - All Joe Thornton wanted for Christmas was a surfboard.

"We have some good waves down there in Santa Cruz," said the San Jose Sharks All-Star center. "I'm going to try to get into that. It's my new thing."

For a moment, his Canadian accent takes on a laidback California lilt. Standing in the Sharks' locker room, you flash back to "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." You wait for Thornton to tell you how totally awesome life is in San Jose, how gnarly everything was in Boston. Yeah, dude.

"Personality-wise, Joe can fit right into the surf style," said teammate and veteran surfer Rob Blake, who ordered Thornton a 10-foot epoxy board. "Looks-wise, too, if he lets his hair grow a little bit longer."

Despite his St. Thomas, Ontario, upbringing, there always has been a carefree, surfer dude quality to Thornton. The ever-present smile. The happy-go-lucky disposition.

After Boston selected Thornton No. 1 overall in the 1997 NHL draft, he was first asked how his "carefree attitude" helped his game. Thornton answered that he didn't "worry about a thing" when playing. After all, what worries could a 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound kid have at that moment? He was a superstar-in-the-making. The Boston hockey world was at his feet. The Hub planned for the Stanley Cup, imagining a Thornton-led parade down Causeway Street.

But the Cup never came. By 2004, happy- go-lucky wasn't playing so well in Boston and it wasn't getting the Bruins past the first round of the playoffs. Management wasn't sure Thornton ever would take the team far. Critics called Thornton soft, faulting him for not bringing more emotional intensity and more goal scoring to the ice. On Nov. 30, 2005, the Bruins traded Thornton to San Jose for defenseman Brad Stuart and forwards Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.

Seven months later, Thornton won the Hart Trophy as the league's MVP, proving San Jose was a good fit all-around. Thornton has not missed a contest with the Sharks, setting the franchise's consecutive-game streak at 272 and counting. And since the trade, no NHL player has more points (359) than Thornton.

"I'd probably have to thank Mike O'Connell for trading me, to be honest with you," said Thornton. "It's worked so well out here."

It sounds as if the former Bruins general manager agrees, though a thank-you might be hard to arrange. Thornton and O'Connell haven't talked since the day the deal went down.

"Hey, it was a business deal we thought we needed to make," said O'Connell. "I'd have no problem saying hello and talking. But my memory's probably not as long as other people's. I made him a millionaire a couple times over . . . playing a game he loves."

The Bruins' concerns were not entirely unfounded. Playoff success has eluded Thornton in San Jose as well. The Sharks have not advanced past the second round in three postseasons with the talented center.

Misguided perception
When the Sharks play the Bruins tomorrow night at the TD Banknorth Garden, Thornton will face his former team in Boston for the second time. With the teams atop their respective conferences, fans might witness a preview of the Stanley Cup final. They certainly will see a more mature Thornton, enjoying the prime of his career at 29.

Teammate Jeremy Roenick called Thornton "really, really special" and called out the Bruins for "giving up on him." Sharks GM Doug Wilson was more subtle.

"I won't comment on what other people or other organizations thought about him," said Wilson. "Joe Thornton, to me, is a winner. He's a happy-go-lucky guy off the ice. But when he gets on the ice, he is vocal. He is physical. He has a mean streak to him. Don't ever confuse the perception of the way he is away from the rink with the way he is on the ice. If people confuse that, then they truly don't know Joe Thornton."

When Thornton, his agent-brother John, and Wilson agreed to a three-year contract extension worth $21.6 million during the summer of 2007, the Sharks GM said negotiations "took 30 minutes." Thornton left money on the table to stay in San Jose. Despite becoming a world traveler since leaving Boston with offseason trips to the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, and Thailand, Thornton never liked the idea of moving around a lot in the NHL. He wouldn't mind if San Jose was his second and final stop.

"He wanted a contract that was fair to him but also allowed us to build a team around him and keep the type of players that you need to have success," said Wilson. "I can't give Joe and his agent enough credit for looking at the big picture. That is a tremendous sign of leadership."

By signing an extension through 2011 at below market value, Thornton set an example that helped keep forwards Milan Michalek, Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe and defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Christian Ehrhoff in the fold and gave Wilson the financial flexibility to sign big-name defensemen Blake and Dan Boyle.

Since Thornton joined San Jose, the team has ranked near the top of the NHL in winning percentage (second at 68.3 percent) and goals per game (fourth with 3.14 per game). Thornton leads San Jose in assists (45), points (57), and plus/minus (+21), while linemates Patrick Marleau (26 goals) and Devin Setoguchi (22) benefit from his generosity and lead the team in goals.

"Overall, the record speaks for itself," said Thornton. "We do have a good group of guys. We all enjoy being around each other. We enjoy going on the road together, going out for dinners. It wouldn't be strange if we had 15 or 20 guys at one team dinner. With a team that's tight, that's close, we enjoy playing for each other. And it's going to find success."

Thornton is also quick to credit first-year coach Todd McLellan, who took charge of the Sharks last June after three seasons on the Detroit Red Wings coaching staff. McLellan, like many NHL coaches before him, has asked the pass-first Thornton to shoot more. Still, Thornton ranks third in the league in assists and 122d in goals (12).

New unpredictability
Blessed with tremendous ice vision and the ability to thread the puck through tight spaces, Thornton acknowledged he has to "break some old habits" to increase his goal total. But he has ample incentive. Thornton and McLellan know the more Thornton shoots, the more it opens up the ice for everyone.

"The staff had an opportunity to watch a lot of the video from the playoffs last year," said McLellan. "We felt he could be more effective getting to the net. He played with the puck a lot of the time, but on the outside looking to pass. We asked him to drive the net a lot more, play around the net without the puck, use his body a little bit more. And he's done that. We'd like to grow his shooting game a little bit. We're not asking him to change tenfold, but just a small percentage."

McLellan, who helped make Detroit one of the best power-play teams in the NHL, also has asked Thornton and the Sharks to make a few changes on the man advantage. Once in San Jose, the coach installed what Thornton described as "more of a free flowing power play." In years past, Thornton was predictably stationed on the half wall. Now, he roams around more in the offensive zone, frustrating opponents with the new unpredictability.

The Sharks' power play ranks fifth in the NHL and second only to the Red Wings in the Western Conference with a 23.2 percent success rate. During the first half of the season, San Jose had the best penalty-killing in the conference (85.7 percent success rate).

Under McLellan, Thornton sees the biggest opportunity for improvement on the defensive end. Watching tape with the coaching staff has helped Thornton learn where he can bolster his individual defense.

"This year with the new coaching staff, you kind of see the game in a new light," said Thornton. "[McLellan] opens your mind on how the game is supposed to be played. You always thought you were a good defensive hockey player. But now he kind of shows you a little bit more video on how defense is supposed to be played. That's one part I think you can always improve on your defensive play and how you dedicate yourself to playing defense. That's one aspect that I'm still trying to get better at."

When asked what kind of defensive clips the coaching staff showed Thornton, McLellan said the emphasis was on "understanding situations" and "managing the game."

The coach added, "There's always going to be risk in his game and there has to be for him to be as gifted offensively. But can we minimize the risk at certain times in the game, against certain opponents? He's been tremendous about it. He comes in and he wants to see himself play. He wants feedback. He wants to be accountable. There's never any walls that we have to knock down with Joe. He's completely receptive to it and he applies it."

Leadership comes easier
Openness never has been an issue for Thornton. McLellan noted the newly engaged, aspiring surfer is a "little bit of a social director" for the Sharks. On the road, he still shares a hotel room with linemate Marleau, even though they both have enough NHL seniority to book singles. There is usually a steady stream of team traffic through the Thornton-Marleau suite. At the very least, defenseman Doug Murray will stop by to play Risk on a computer with Thornton.

But in the hours before and after games, the room becomes more focused on the competition.

"I enjoy having somebody to talk to before and after games," said Marleau. "Now that we're linemates, we can hash things over. We can work on plays. I should have got it to you. Next time maybe we should try this. We always talk about how certain guys are playing. We get things off our chest. I get to see a more serious side. I see how he approaches the game. The way he competes rubs off."

The Sharks don't see the same leadership and toughness void the Bruins saw. Not one to hold grudges, Thornton sees a difference, too.

"As far as leadership goes, the older you get the more comfortable you feel in your skin," said Thornton. "Leadership comes a little bit easier with age."

Asked if he was more comfortable in San Jose than he was in Boston, Thornton added, "Now, as a 29-year-old, you're a little bit different than a 26-year-old. But I actually felt really comfortable in Boston. I felt that I was one of the best players in the league at the time. I thought Boston was going to be the home for me for the rest of my career."

But he is too happy-go-lucky to look back for long. After all, surf's up for Thornton and the Sharks.

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.

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