Ice in His Veins
Joe Thornton drives really fast. Not like some video game maniac or anything. No, he's in total control, loose but composed. It's the same way the captain of the Boston Bruins does everything from popping fried jalapeños to leading a fast break at the FleetCenter. Innate ability. Action by intuition.
We're cruising north on I-93 in Thornton's tankish black Lincoln Navigator Â— one of the only cars that fits his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame Â— heading toward the Bruins' practice facility in Wilmington. The needle quivers around 80 while Eminem raps about trailer-park life, but Thornton leans back, his knees jutting up, one hand on the steering wheel. He's dressed for lounging, in black sweats and a black fleece hooded sweatshirt. On this cold Wednesday in early December, he looks a little like a loafing French artiste in his scraggly goatee Â— not a care in the world. He just signed a contract extension worth a reported $5 million, stands second in the NHL in scoring, and is being called by some the best player in the league Â— which means the best in the world. And at 23 years old, an age when most people are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, he's the captain of an NHL team.
“I'm having a blast,” Thornton says, smiling like a kid on a playground. “It's easier when you're winning, know what I mean? This has been really good.”
By this he means the unexpected success the Bruins have enjoyed in the first third of the season. At the outset, some pundits wondered if, having lost all-star forward Bill Guerin, goalie Byron Dafoe, and defenseman Kyle McLaren, the Bruins had enough even to make the playoffs. Then Coach Robbie Ftorek named Thornton captain, challenging the young center to carry the team to the next level. It was a risky move considering Thornton's age and his relatively quiet off-ice demeanor. But this is Thornton's sixth season, and if he is ever going to fulfill his much publicized, criticized, and agonized potential for greatness, it must be now.
“I was waiting for someone to rise to the occasion,” Ftorek said after naming Thornton captain. “Joe's done a real good job of that Â— the way he handles himself in the dressing room, the way he prepared himself for this season, and obviously the way he leads on the ice.”
“If you're a leader, you're a leader,” says ESPN hockey analyst and former NHL coach Barry Melrose. “Not only when you're 40, but also when you're 10, when you're 15. Just because you're young doesn't mean you're not a leader.”
Speed kills. So goes the old sports adage, usually muttered at a postgame press conference by a coach whose team has just been killed. But the maxim reaches beyond athletics. It also applies to elephants.
Joseph Eric Thornton grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, a small city of 50,000 halfway between Toronto and Detroit that's best known as the place where Jumbo the elephant died in 1885 after being struck by a train. (The locomotive was just too fast for the big, old main attraction of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.) Thornton's was a typical Canadian upbringing. His parents, Mary and Wayne, put skates on their three boys Â— Joe and his two older brothers, Alex and John Â— when they reached two and a half years old.
“My husband got our kids into hockey,” Mary recalls. “That's just something you do, right? That's just the natural thing.”
“We didn't believe any of the boys would make a career out of it,” Wayne pipes in. “We just exposed them to sports. But Mary also took them to piano, to violin.”
“They didn't like that,” Mary confides.
Thornton played as often as he could Â— traveling teams, road hockey, winter, spring, summer. By high school, after two outstanding seasons with the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Greyhounds Â— the same team Wayne Gretzky played for as a teenager Â— he was being called the best junior player in Canada. In 1997, the Bruins drafted Thornton number one overall. The scrawny, shaggy-haired 18-year-old who showed up on Causeway Street that fall was heralded as the Next Big Thing.
Of course, professional sports in Boston is a brutal meritocracy: You either succeed and they love you, or you fail and they don't. It demands a thick skin and a lot of luck. Thornton's first few years were trying ones, complete with a broken wrist, a dearth of goals, and enough bad press that his mother still has it in for the local press corps. “I hope someone attacks their kids someday and puts it in the paper,” she says, her voice racked with emotion.
The difficulties of that first year still seethe in Thornton, but he took it as a challenge. “I'm a small-town guy and my picture was on the front page,” he recalls, “and I'm like, 'Wow, they're expecting a lot out of me, so I better start going here.' But you know I was so young, coming into the league at 18.”
Cam Neely joined the Bruins when he was 18, too. “You're like, 'I can't believe I'm here,'” Neely remembers. “Then, if you're going to succeed, you have to ask, 'What do I do to get better, to become an elite player?'”
Most people in the hockey world will tell you Thornton has answered Neely's question. They point to his skating ability, his good hands, his size, his strength, his vision, his mean streak. “Nobody has the complete package like Joe,” says Barry Melrose. In other words, he's finally started living up to all the hype of being a number-one overall draft pick.
At the arena in Wilmington Â— “the coldest rink in America,” Thornton tells me Â— he cuts an impressive figure. He stands a few inches higher than most of his teammates, though he carries it with an unwavering blue-collar Canadian humbleness. He's boyishly good looking, with floppy blond hair and sad, drooping eyes. His sharp-edged jaw and taut mouth soften whenever he unleashes his trademark guffaw.
When Thornton strolls into the locker room, everyone pauses for a split second to say hello. He carries that easygoing aura that teammates and fans gravitate to and respect.
“His age is not important,” says 28-year-old, Swedish-born left wing P. J. Axelsson. “He plays hard every shift. And he's funny. He cracks a joke here and there. I don't know if they're any good, though.”
“Joe's a quiet leader, not a rah-rah guy,” says right wing Martin Lapointe, one of only four Bruins who have won a Stanley Cup (Lapointe won his in 1997 and 1998 with the Detroit Red Wings). “Last year, he wanted more responsibility, and this year, he's totally business-minded. No highs, no lows, just staying focused. He's stayed himself.”
Actually, he's become more than himself. He's become a superstar. In last night's game against Montreal, he had a brilliant moment that showed exactly why. The Canadiens were leading 4-0 by the middle of the second period when Thornton's linemate, Mike Knuble, blindly sent the puck toward the Montreal net. It jumped up, tumbling end over end, until Thornton batted it out of midair into the goal. It was a bit of magical stick work, and it all happened while Thornton was being mangled by an opposing defenseman.
In the end, the Bruins lost. The next day in the car, I ask Thornton how he, as captain, gets the team refocused after a disheartening defeat.
“We don't have no worries yet,” he says, laughing. “It's just another loss. If we had maybe six or seven in a row, a couple of us would sit down with the team. It's not a problem right now.”
Three weeks later, it is a problem. The Bruins have gone into a devastating slump, winning just two of their last ten games. That Montreal loss ended up becoming the first in a five-game slide. Since then, the team has fallen into second place in its division, crushed by poor goaltending and a spate of injuries.
No one can fault Joe Thornton. He's maintained his torrid scoring pace, still second in the league. Fans voted him player of the month for December on NHL.com.
But the losing is getting old. “It's beginning to take its toll on him,” Boston Herald beat writer Steve Conroy tells me in the press box before a game against the Carolina Hurricanes. “He's getting beaten up out there every night.”
Still, Thornton comes out flying. Just seconds into the game, he collects the puck at center ice, drives into the Hurricanes' zone, and flicks a wrist shot at the goal. Before most of the fans have swallowed their first nacho, Thornton has whizzed a puck into the back of the net. 1-0.
The FleetCenter erupts in celebration. Is this the end of the slump? Has Thornton provided the jump-start the team needs to rediscover what it takes to win?
Alas, no. Two quick goals later and the Bruins are down again.
Before the final buzzer, Thornton snaps when the Hurricanes' Sean Hill aims a hip check at his knee. Thornton springs to his feet, grabs Hill around the neck, and pile-drives his head into the ice. He gets four minutes in the penalty box. “I wanted to kill him,” Thornton tells me later. “You see that happen so many times when guys blow out their knees. Some don't come back. I was like, 'God, you're dead.'”
In this game, you're always one hip-check away from coaching house league back in Ontario. In the bizarre etiquette of the NHL, Thornton's outburst is honored by players. “I'm glad he did it,” says Cam Neely, whose own career ended early due to a vicious knee injury.
But Thornton's explosion doesn't inspire the team. The end result against Carolina is another 4-2 loss. After the game, the team stays in private for a half-hour, hashing things out. When the media is allowed into the locker room, the players are tight-lipped. They've closed ranks, clinging to the only thing they know to be true and fair Â— themselves.
“You just go out and play harder,” Thornton says later. “It doesn't matter what you say in here. You gotta do it on the ice.”
The slide doesn't end for another few weeks. In the meantime, Thornton has had a hard run. He misses five games because of an infection in his elbow. Five minutes into his first game back, he is ejected on a dubious call; calling it a “farce” and “atrocious,” he lashes out at the referees.
It all finally comes together again in a late-January matinee game against the Washington Capitals. To call Thornton “on his game” or “firing on all cylinders” is redundant. What makes him stand out is that, on the ice, he's always that way.
True to the script, the Bruins fall behind 2-0 in the first period. Then, near the end of the second, Thornton earns his millions. He collects the puck in the corner, glides toward the side of the net, and drills a quick wrist shot between the goalie's legs. Tight angles, rapid movement, zero space Â— he makes it look easy.
Beside me in the press box, former Bruin defenseman Brad Park scribbles notes. Park is now a scout for the New York Rangers. I pry a little, and he shows me his scouting chart. It's covered with shorthand. “Xs are bad, check marks are good,” he explains. “Joe is the best forward in the NHL right now. If he has two or three Xs on my sheet, he's had a bad game.”
At the final buzzer, Thornton's received one X and four check marks, plus his goal and two assists, all of which forged the Bruins' come-from-behind 3-3 draw. Something has changed for the team, something for the better, and it's palpable. Coach Ftorek calls the result “a good tie.”
The next day, Thornton meets me for lunch at the Sports Grille, a dark, TV-wallpapered cave a half-block from the FleetCenter. “Man, we were all over them,” he says. “Getting another goal would've been real nice.”
As we scarf down jalapeño poppers, our conversation veers toward non-hockey stuff: the Super Bowl (“I love that Tampa defense”), and Joe Millionaire (“I love that reality TV stuff”). Thornton seems transformed since we last spoke. He's reverted to that easygoing kid who drives fast with one hand on the wheel. Not too high, not too low. I ask if the team's out of the slump, and for the first time he sounds like a captain.
“Winning is contagious,” he exclaims, his gray-green eyes blazing. “It becomes habit. We'll be fine now.”
But around here, “fine” isn't good enough. All we want to know is whether the Bruins can win the Stanley Cup this year.
Thornton pops another fried jalapeño. “Why not?”