His Time Has Come
After nine years of establishing himself as a superior passing center and a league MVP, Joe Thornton is ready to be the clutch goal scorer and leader who can bring the Stanley Cup to San Jose
Posted: Tuesday October 2, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday October 2, 2007 11:02AM
Joe Thornton visited the Taj Mahal last summer, which would seem to rank with Richard Nixon's trip to Communist China or Hannibal's taking the scenic mountain route on the list of history's most surprising road trips. Thornton, the Sharks' No. 1 center, has traipsed through the NHL for a decade under the guise of Spicoli with a slap shot, a happy-go-lucky lug whose conspicuous talent is equaled only by his sweet nature. (To this day, you cannot look at the 6' 4", 237-pound Thornton, with his open face and winning grin, and not think... Dude!) "The fact that he was at the Taj Mahal and not at a bar called the Taj Mahal," says San Jose coach Ron Wilson, "that's a sign of maturity."
This is Wilson's little joke. At 28, and having played for only two NHL teams, Thornton has become among the most traveled if not the most worldly of hockey players. He played in Switzerland during the NHL lockout, and he and girlfriend Tabea Pfendsack -- O.K., she managed the bar in Davos, where the team hung out -- have toured extensively. He has photos to prove it. "His Christmas card last year was of him on the Great Wall of China," Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren says. "The best I could do was my kids outside my house."
"I'm pretty into the Seven Wonders," Thornton says.
As the puck drops on the 2007-08 season, many in the NHL are wondering this: Will Thornton, a three-time All-Star and 2005-06 league MVP with soft hands and long-doubted resolve, finally pick up his team by the scruff of its neck and lead it to a Stanley Cup?
Thornton watched two games of the 2007 Ducks-Senators final on tape while in India and, between winces, noticed the physical dominance of Anaheim, the Western Conference team. So, why shouldn't it be San Jose's turn in 2008? "We have a little more experience from the Edmonton and Detroit series," he said of second-round meltdowns in the past two seasons. "We realize we had some of those games in hand, but couldn't find a way to finish them. There are a lot of pieces here, a lot of guys going through their prime years. Realistically, we've got a shot at the Cup."
The Sharks, in fact, have an excellent shot. With Thornton taking the mantle of leadership that has been assigned to him since his teenage years with the Bruins, San Jose is SI's choice to win it all.
If wisdom is the marriage of experience and knowledge, as San Jose general manager Doug Wilson suggests, then the Sharks have been spiritually enlightened up the yin and yang.
Their six-game loss to the Red Wings last spring could have, maybe should have, been a San Jose sweep. In the two matches they frittered away, the Sharks had 2-0 leads. In Game 2 in Detroit, in which Thornton had a goal and an assist in the first five minutes, defenseman Christian Ehrhoff coughed up the puck like a hair ball on a third-period power play, leading to a short-handed goal that tied the score. Even more egregious, in the final minute of Game 4 with the Sharks on the verge of taking a three-games-to-one lead in the series, captain Patrick Marleau got caught cheating on the offensive side of the puck in the neutral zone, permitting Detroit to score with 33.1 seconds left in regulation.