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The Odd Couple
Gerry Callahan
November 16, 1998
Joe Thornton (left) and Sergei Samsonov have little in common, save that they're big-time talents who are the future of the Bruins
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November 16, 1998

The Odd Couple

Joe Thornton (left) and Sergei Samsonov have little in common, save that they're big-time talents who are the future of the Bruins

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Two for the Ages?
It's rare for a team to have a pair of first-round draft picks from the same year become stars, and only time will tell if Joe Thornton will join Sergei Samsonov as a top player. Here are five duos selected in the same year by the same team who became outstanding NHLers.

YEAR

TEAM

PLAYERS

POS.

DRAFT NUMBER

SKINNY

1982

Buffalo Sabres

*Phil Housley
*Dave Andreychuk

D
LW

6
16

Housley is the highest-scoring U.S.-born defenseman in history, with 1,031 points at week s end; Andreychuk had scored 522 goals.

1979

Boston Bruins

*Ray Bourque
Brad McCrimmon

D
D

8
15

Bourque, a sure Hall of Famer, is one of only two defensemen to get 1,000 or more assists; McCrimmon played 18 solid seasons and was an All-Star in 1988.

1974

Montreal Canadiens

Doug Riscbrough
Mario Tremblay

C
RW

7
12

They were keys to Montreal's four straight Cups (1976-79). Risebrough was a tough and talented defensive player; Tremblay had 30 or more goals four times,

1970

Boston Bruins

Reggie Leach
Rick MacLeish

RW
C

3
4

They combined for 730 goals (most of them as members of the Philadelphia Flyers), but had only nine for the Bruins, all by Leach.

1966

New York Rangers

Brad Park
Don Luce

D
C

2
14

Park, a Hall of Famer, finished second in the Norris Trophy voting six times; Luce played 13 seasons, mostly for Buffalo, scoring 225 goals.

*Active player

—David Sabino

Little Sammy came from Moscow, Big Joe from London, Ont., and when they arrived in Boston together last year, they continued to reside on opposite ends of the earth. Sergei Samsonov and Joe Thornton were both 18 years old and had been selected by the Bruins in the first round of the 1997 draft. As their teammates and coaches say, the similarities ended there.

"Sammy is like an old-time Russian hockey player: intense, driven, a purpose to everything he does," says 29-year-old veteran left wing Ted Donate "Joe's a great kid, but he's more of a traditional 19-year-old."

Thornton has long blond hair, an easy smile and wears a pro wrestling T-shirt after every practice. He lists Goldberg as the one person he would like to meet and Dumb and Dumber as his favorite movie. He weighs 220 pounds and stands 6'4", which may explain why his head often seems to be in the clouds. "Look at him," a teammate says, smiling and nodding across the locker room toward Thornton. "He's our Spicoli."

Samsonov is their little Rutger Hauer. Samsonov has the cool, hard look of a soldier and the intensity of a man who is playing to pay the mortgage. He's 5'8" and 184 pounds, and his size-seven feet are firmly on the ground. He sits down to a lunch of pasta and cranberry juice—no soda, no dessert—and is asked when his birthday is. "I'm not sure," he says, no trace of a smile. "Soon."

He is reminded that he turns 20 the next day and is asked how he will celebrate. "I will be in Montreal," he says. "I guess I'll be getting ready to play a game."

The Bruins recently returned to Boston after two weeks on the road, and Thornton, like most of the players, had big plans for his first Sunday back home: sleep late, relax, watch football. Samsonov had other ideas. "I have many bills to pay," he said, shaking his head. Says Bruins assistant general manager Mike O'Connell, "Most guys that age are thinking about Nintendo and occasionally trying to act mature. With Sammy it's no act. For his age, he's as mature as any player I've ever met."

After a disappointing first half for both players last season, Samsonov and Thornton went their separate ways during the Olympic break. Joe traveled to St. Thomas, Ont., to hang out with his buddies, while Sergei stayed in Boston and toured prospective prep schools with his 14-year-old brother, Yuri, who lives with him, along with their parents, Viktor and Tatiana. When the players returned to work after the 19-day hiatus, Samsonov and Thornton continued to go in opposite directions. Thornton resumed his rookie-year struggles; Samsonov became a star. "Joe was still a kid, still kind of giddy about the whole thing," says Bruins general manager Harry Sinden. "Sergei was all business. I don't think he was ever giddy about anything."

Samsonov and Thornton, the Russian Rocket and the Canadian rocker, are an odd and intriguing pair who promise to deliver excitement to Boston fans, though on different schedules. Thornton is a center with the size, speed and boundless potential that left the Bruins no choice but to use the No. 1 overall draft pick on him in 1997 Thornton's rookie season was a long and tedious learning process. His talent appeared in tantalizing flashes, but in 55 games he had only three goals and four assists. "Someone asked me, 'When is Thornton going to be Cam Neely?' " says Boston coach Pat Burns, who took over behind the Bruins bench before last season. "I said, 'Oh, how about 2005? He'll be 26. He'll be in his prime. He'll be a hell of a player. That's how long it takes some guys.' "

Says O'Connell, "We were thinking more like 2000."

There will be no such wait for Samsonov, the Bruins' second pick, No. 8 overall, in 1997 After emigrating from Russia in '96, Samsonov, a left wing, played one year in the International Hockey League, winning the rookie of the year award and leading the Detroit Vipers to the championship. Rick Dudley, the Ottawa Senators general manager who ran the Vipers then, says Samsonov, even at 17 and in a new country, showed remarkable poise. "It would have been overwhelming for most people, being that young and not understanding the language and playing against guys 25 or 30 years old," says Dudley, "but he's not a normal human being. He's special."

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