Hockey Notes

Thornton finally emerges as more than average Joe

By Kevin Paul Dupont
May 15, 2011

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Now that’s the Joe Thornton that Bruins fans expected, yearned for, so desperately wanted. Jumbo Joe turned in a career performance Thursday night, captaining the Sharks to a thrilling 3-2 Game 7 win over the Red Wings and moving San Jose into the Western Conference finals.

Thornton, whom the Bruins made the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 (in case anyone forgot), actually tallied only one assist— a sensational feed for a Devin Setoguchi strike in the first period. He did not land a single shot on net in 22:02 of ice time. He did OK at the faceoff dot, winning 9 of 15, and registered but one of his club’s 24 hits. All in all, not a lot that jumps off the game sheet.

Let those humble numbers be Exhibit A in the case against statistics defining a player’s contributions. It was, without question, a career game for the 31-year-old Thornton, and it came in his 1,099th NHL contest. A long time in the making. But was it ever sensational to watch.

In the days leading to the ’97 draft, the billing on the gangly, slightly goofy 17-year-old was that he would be a Mike Modano-Eric Lindros hybrid. For a Bruins franchise that had finished dead last (26-47-9), the 6-foot-4-inch Jumbo Joe arrived on Causeway Street as a would-be savior, only to become part of the Nov. 30, 2005, trade that ultimately got Mike O’Connell canned as general manager in the spring of 2006.

Had Thornton played here the way he played Thursday night in San Jose, it’s all but a guarantee that we wouldn’t be talking about a Stanley Cup drought that now approaches 40 years. Thornton played with fire, with awareness, with grit. He used his strength, size, speed, and smarts and made himself a presence on every one of his 33 shifts. He exuded confidence, toughness, and leadership.

If you’re old enough to remember, Thornton’s play Thursday night was reminiscent of the days here in the ’60s and ’70s when Bobby Orr took to the ice. What, duck out for a shift to grab something in the kitchen? Are you nuts? Miss a shift of that? Good luck to you and the Oakland Seals. Everything about Thornton’s play spoke to awareness and anticipation and game sense, to owning the sheet.

Just one example that doesn’t show up in the game summary: Thornton sprinting back to catch up to a two-on-one break and disrupt the Red Wings’ scoring chance some 10 feet in front of the net. Obviously, not a situation Orr often found himself in, but Thornton’s action was reminiscent of No. 4 in that it displayed such high-end speed and game intelligence and, most important, determination. With each ferocious stride, you could almost hear the big, bearded lug snorting, “Not . . . gonna . . . happen!’’

Not all of Thornton’s shifts showed that skill or will, but he had enough of them, enough that they raised the obvious question: Why did we not see that in his 7 1/2 seasons here?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that, of course. Expectations were high. He was only two months beyond his 18th birthday when reporting to his first training camp in Wilmington. He was immature (there was an alleged dustup with two police officers at the bar Burty Bob’s II in St. Thomas, Ontario, at age 23). He was appointed team captain far too early.

But most of all, he was just Joe, an extremely pleasant kid with abundant size and skill, but almost equally undersized when it came time to grasp the moment, to play with determination, to lead with character and guile (e.g. his Full Thornton no-show in the seven-game series vs. Montreal in 2004).

Sure, it could have been different, it could have been a lot more like it was Thursday night in San Jose, although Thornton acolytes now will conveniently forget that it took him another 5 1/2 seasons in teal to get to that career/character game. And though some players never get there, few players ever have had Thornton’s blend of skill and size, which makes the long time getting there feel longer than a three-legged race to Neptune.

It began to turn for Thornton when Mike Keenan became his coach in Boston eight games into the 2000-01 season. Had O’Connell left Keenan on the job in the spring of 2001, the bet here is that Iron Mike, with a 22-year-old man-child on his hands, would have had Thornton find his man and lose his child. Pronto.

O’Connell, though, dismissed Keenan and hired Robbie Ftorek as coach, eschewing an opportunity to give Peter Laviolette (now with one Cup and one win short of another) his first gig as an NHL bench boss.

All of that now is so much Zamboni detritus. Let the record show that on May 12, 2011, the Jumbo Joe we thought we would know finally made it to The Show. Late, yes, but splendid to witness nonetheless.

Casting a net for Bryzgalov? As the regular season closed, Coyotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov made it clear that he had no interest in going to Winnipeg if the Phoenix franchise moved north. Too cold, and no place up there for the kids to play, noted the proud son of Togliatti, Russia. Sounds a little like Elton John’s “Rocket Man’’: “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids . . . in fact, it’s cold as hell.’’

Now that the Coyotes are staying put for at least one year, no telling where Bryz’s rocket lands. He made $4.5 million this past year and will have just turned 31 when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.

The bet around the league is that the Flyers finally — finally! —will get serious about fixing their goaltending woes and bring him to Philadelphia to partner with star freshman Sergei Bobrovsky (proud son of Novokuznetsk). In 11 postseason games, the Flyers tied an NHL record by yanking their starting goalie seven times.

“Something I never want to see again,’’ fumed Flyers chairman Ed Snider. Whatever it takes, he said, the Flyers will find the 24-square-foot fix.

Snider also heaped praise on Tim Thomas for his dynamic work in Round 2.

“When you have a goalie playing out of his mind,’’ said Snider, “that confidence spreads to the whole team.’’

Likewise, when the goalie has the shakes, the place grows colder than Mars.

Philadelphia took a beating There was no question that the Flyers, swept out of the postseason by the Bruins, played as if they were banged up in Round 2. Indeed, by Thursday, no fewer than six of them had gone under the knife. The operating room casting call included Chris Pronger (back), Kris Versteeg (abdominal), Michael Leighton (hip), Mike Richards (wrist), Blair Betts (finger), and Andrej Meszaros (wrist). And as the weekend approached, Jeff Carter and Scott Hartnell were awaiting word on whether they would need hip surgery. For all the pain they’ve inflicted throughout the league for decades — especially after the whistle — the Broad Streeters are never going to garner much sympathy around the Original 30. But that is an inordinate amount of repair and rehab. Pronger’s back had a chipped disk putting pressure on a nerve. Which explains why the towering blue liner had to exit the Boston series.

Avery message raises a ruckus Sean Avery just has a way of making things happen, doesn’t he? The Ranger rabble-rouser last week was at the center of an expanding storm, having appeared in a Human Rights Campaign video (title: “New Yorkers for Marriage Equality’’) in which he endorsed same-sex marriage. For the record, that’s where Avery’s involvement started and ended, at least thus far. He has had no comment since. The mushroom cloud to follow had player agent Todd Reynolds, who does not represent Avery, tweeting: “Very sad to see Sean Avery’s misguided support of same gender ‘marriage.’ Legal or not, it will always be wrong.’’ Next, Toronto TV sports host Damian Goddard followed with his own tweet in which he supported Reynolds, noting to all tweetdom that Avery’s comments were “very sad’’ and “wrong.’’ A free lancer for Rogers Sportsnet, Goddard was promptly dismissed from his position as host of the network’s “Connected’’ show. A Sportsnet representative later said the decision to terminate Goddard had been made days before he threw his full-tweet support behind Reynolds. Not that any of us really needed further proof that this isn’t your daddy’s Original Six anymore, but . . . a player/agent/TV host tussle over same-sex marriage? Proof that cold arena floors and too much Zamboni exhaust are good for neither soles nor souls.

Finances are Coyote ugly Looks as though Winnipegers will have to wait another year, or pin their hopes on a possible Atlanta pack-and-go, if they have any hope of sating their NHL craving. The Glendale (Ariz.) City Council, fresh from handing over $25 million to cover the Coyotes’ 2010-11 losses, voted last week to do the same again next season if the Coyotes remain financial dogs (this year’s net loss looks like $37 million). During a break in Council proceedings, a citizen in the crowd hollered, “This city is bankrupt.’’ An avid pack of Coyotes fans then shouted him down, as if howling at a full moon in the middle of the desert. Maybe the $25 million Council payout becomes an annual spring tradition in Glendale, like the return of the swallows to Capistrano or the race for discount wedding gowns at Filene’s Basement or tapping the maple trees in Vermont.

Fashion crimes During a delightful Easter brunch, I couldn’t help but ask a family friend who works in Dedham District Court what the preferred sports jersey was these days for the various bums and deadbeats who fill the daily docket. Much to my surprise, she said the trend recently has heavily favored Red Sox and Patriots wear. Some encouragement there, considering most of those nitwits for years arrived in court sporting Black-and-Gold sweaters, all too often in No. 77 Bourque and No. 8 Neely XXXLs, usually dotted generously with mustard and ketchup stains. Then last week, right there on page B1 of Thursday’s Globe, we had a picture of Robert J. Hersey of Arlington sporting a Milan Lucic Spoked-B T-shirt in East Boston District Court, charged with interfering with the operation of an aircraft. Hersey, an unemployed plumber, was released after posting $1,000 in bail and is due back in court June 7, right in the thick of the Stanley Cup finals. What do you think, the Shoebottom Spoked-B sweater for that appearance?

A game of survivor It’s not the humongous “Lighthouse’’ project that Islanders owner Charles Wang has longed for, but Nassau County voters in August will decide whether they want a new rink and new minor league ballpark in Uniondale, at a cost of some $400 million. The Aug. 1 referendum, if given a thumbs-up, will provide the necessary bonds for a deal intended to have the Islanders pay back the full amount over the course of some 30 years. The Islander lease at the dusty Coliseum ends in 2015. Without a new rink, the Nassau voters essentially will be voting the Islanders off the island.

Loose pucks Look for the league and the Players Association to set the salary cap for the 2011-12 season about this time next month. The figure should be right around $62 million, according to recent reports, with players again making substantial escrow payments, perhaps 10 percent or more, at least to start the season . . . If not Ilya Bryzgalov to the Flyers, maybe a deal for Los Angeles’s Jonathan Bernier or the Islanders’ Evgeni Nabokov . . . The Predators, as expected, announced that associate coach Brent Peterson, fighting Parkinson’s disease, will not join Barry Trotz behind the bench next season. “I’m going to get Trotzy’s coffee next year,’’ said the 53-year-old Peterson, adding some levity to an otherwise somber press conference in Nashville. Peterson, because of his physical decline, had to back off his on-ice duties two months ago. He’ll remain with the coaching staff, his role and duties to be determined . . . The Predators have been encouraged of late that defected forward Alex Radulov would consider a return to Tune Town after spending the last three seasons with the KHL’s Ufa Salavat. Assistant GM Paul Fenton had a heart-to-heart with the 24-year-old winger, which GM David Poile characterized this way to The Tennessean: “You think you are one of the best players in the world. Are you going to come over to the best league and show that? Or are you going to stay in a secondary league?’’ . . . Team USA, captained by ex-Bruin Mark Stuart and coached by ex-Providence Bruins coach Scott Gordon, exited the World Championships in Bratislava after a 4-0 loss to the Czechs. Star Czech forward Jaromir Jagr is without a contract after spending the last three seasons in Russia with Omsk Avangard. Jags, 39, has been invited to a Penguins golf outing this summer in Pittsburgh that will salute the 1991 team that won the franchise’s first Cup. Fond memories of Pittsburgh, said Jags. “They all liked me when I was younger,’’ he said. The love affair wore off in July 2001 when he asked to be traded and soon became owner Ted Leonsis’s multimillion-dollar headache in D.C. “I did two very high-profile deals in 11 years that proved there is no quick fix to anything,’’ Leonsis said in a recent interview. “Everybody said with Jaromir Jagr we’re one player away, and that Michael Jordan is coming, we will get free agents. And none of it happened. There’s big news, it was great for the press releases, great for the media, but not the product.’’

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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