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
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
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
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
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
"Our team has
shot itself in the foot so many times," McLaren says. "One mistake
tends to trouble us more than it should. One mistake last year [in Game�4]
cost us a round. Or two."
The best passing
center west of Sidney Crosby wasn't on the ice at that moment, but Thornton
will not take a pass on the responsibility, even if he thought he had a
creditable playoffs. He still has not defined himself as a clutch player, but
compared with his history as a playoff wallflower, the 2007 postseason was a
virtual debutante ball. Thornton, who tied a team playoff record with assists
in seven straight games, averaged a point per match after having totaled only
eight goals and 19 assists in his previous 46 playoff games. While ribs were
the most noteworthy part of his anatomy in his checkered playoff
past--soldiering on despite cartilage damage, Thornton went pointless in 2004
with Boston, which fell in seven games to Montreal in the first round--last
spring it was his spine. "You saw it in Game�3 against Detroit,"
Sharks winger Mike Grier says. "We had a great first period, a bad second
period. The look in Joe's eyes after that period kind of kept guys going. He
wasn't happy. Then he went out in the third period and dominated."
There are other
reasons to believe that Thornton--who would play only 23 more games for the
Bruins after those '04 playoffs before being traded in what will go down among
the top front-office gaffes in Boston sports history--is ready to propel his
team deep into the postseason. "I sensed a little different Joe in the
playoffs last year, and more important, Joe did too," Ron Wilson says.
"There was a fire and a hunger. Maybe in the past he'd more readily accept
a poor performance from a teammate as long as he did well himself. Now you saw
a little more urgency. This is a process you see for a lot of players who are
exposed to that kind of scrutiny, like Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic. Even in
basketball, Michael Jordan--and I'm not saying [Joe is] Michael Jordan--needed
six years or so. Jordan won, not because he was a better player but because he
put pressure on teammates to be better. This is not about points but about
doing something that most helps the team."