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The King of Cool
Hockey finally gets a chance to thank Joe Thornton
1/18/2024 - By Ryan Hall

Joe Thornton is not the most important player in San Jose Sharks franchise history. He isn't Owen Nolan, who became the heart and soul of a team trying to find its way in the big, bad NHL. He isn't Igor Larionov, who brought a style and tactical elegance to playing hockey that would set a blueprint that was followed until 2020. He isn't even Joe Pavelski, Captain America, who wore his heart on his sleeve and showed that the race isn't always to the fastest or most skilled, but often to those who want it the most.

Rather, Joe Thornton symbolized the rare synthesis between place and profession. Heck, he was the San Jose Sharks in the eyes of many fans, especially those who live further east and perhaps don't pay enough attention to what happens 'out west'.

At the best of times, he seemed to be the embodiment of the 'mythical' California stereotype. Cool. Laid back. Yet somehow, some way, still irresistibly talented and productive. He was a player that always seemed to be playing the game at 75% speed, a trick that deceived your eyes and made you overlook the fact that his brain was processing things faster than everyone else.

Joe was never in a hurry, yet he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Like on April 25, 2011, when inexplicably there he was, alone in front to sweep home a rebound past Jonathan Quick and send the Kings packing; not to mention launch a thousand 'sliding Joe Thornton' gifs.

Or how about the fact that he made his living passing the puck, setting up other people, rather than doing the deed himself. For his career Thornton recorded a 14% shooting percentage, exactly the same as Pavel Bure, slightly ahead of Mike Gartner (13.9%) and Jaromir Jagr (13.6%), while just behind current stars Nikita Kucherov (14.5%) and Sidney Crosby (14.7%). It's not that he couldn't score, rather he chose not to. While everyone else was into scoring goals he was into something underground, something old school: being a playmaker. You probably haven't heard of it. How hipster!

I could go on and list all the reasons, records, and moments that made Thornton the embodiment of California Cool: the beard, the laughter, the joy in being with teammates, and pranking said teammates (shaving cream in the face, anyone?). But perhaps the most important detail is the way he blossomed when he arrived in November of 2005. From the lanky youth who just couldn't seem to figure it out in Boston, to the towering 'Jedidiah' Thornton in San Jose he not only grew physically but also emotionally and personally. He seemed to thrive once he had more space, more room to be himself, and once he got away from the pressure and fishbowl of the Boston media. It allowed him to become a confident, strong, outgoing leader.

However, no mention of Joe Thornton is complete without mentioning that the very same traits that made him successful were also blamed when his Sharks teams failed in the postseason. Rightly or wrongly his laidback attitude, lack of physicality, reluctance to shoot, and perceived laziness on the ice were always pointed to as reasons why he never got that elusive Stanley Cup ring. Still, it all seems a bit too easy, a bit too Don Cherry-ish. It carries hints of jealousy and envy from critics who don't like to think that sometimes you can succeed by working smarter rather than harder. By those who assume that only a certain mentality is the 'right way' to play the game.

In short, it misses the bigger picture.

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard and requires amazing luck. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't been paying attention. There are no rules on location, lifestyle, tactics, body type, or roster construction that have to be followed in order to ensure success. Skilled teams have won. Grinding teams have won. Top seeds, bottom seeds, and everyone in between. And along the way dozens of great teams have fallen short. It's the cruel nature of sports, and it's why only a few - very few - players should ever have their career judged by the number of championships on their resume. Too much of it is luck and hangs on a knife edge:

* A single different bounce in OT against Edmonton on May 10, 2006.

* 34 more seconds of holding off the Red Wings on May 3, 2007.

* 3 different OT losses to Dallas in 2008.

* A different bounce in OT on June 1, 2016, against Pittsburgh.

* A healthy Erik Karlsson against the Blues in 2019.

If any one of these things change, does that change the narrative? Should it?

All that I know for certain is that Joe Thornton is not the most important player in San Jose Sharks franchise history. Nor are any of the other names listed at the start of this article, because the most important player in franchise history hasn't shown up yet. That individual will be the one who brings a title and is the first player wearing teal to hoist the Cup. Everyone else will be part of the foundation, the bedrock, that will help make that accomplishment possible.

But until then, we can celebrate those who have had an impact on the franchise. For 15 years Joe Thornton led - and elevated - the Sharks to the elite echelons of the league. He set records, won trophies, and did it with his own personal style. He transformed a California NHL outpost into the center of the hockey world. He made this franchise a destination and he never stopped working to include new players. From the moment he arrived until his jersey is lifted into the rafters Thornton lived Sharks, bled Sharks, and loved the city and its fans.

Players like that are rare. They're what make sports fun and why we become fans.

Next season, after 1,104 games, we all get a chance to say a well-deserved 'thank you'.

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