Shawn Thornton knows he’s one of a hockey breed that’s quickly going extinct in the NHL and the other leagues that ultimately feed the best hockey league in the world.
Thornton, 39, is entering his 20th professional hockey season and will fill the enforcer role for the Florida Panthers, a gig he’s had with the Sunshine State Big Cats for three years after departing the Bruins following seven memorable, highly successful seasons.
The fourth-line winger hasn’t seen his PIMs jump over 100 in any of the past four seasons, however, and Thornton – along with everybody else in the NHL – is dropping the gloves with less and less frequency.
Truth be told, Thornton is around less for fighting these days and more for team-bonding leadership, unending energy, team toughness and the kind of organizational success that seems to follow him from place to place on his NHL journey.
He’ll fill that role gladly for at least one more season and be happy for two decades of work in professional hockey while postponing those retirement plans he thought were coming this summer.
Thornton was so sure he would have been done after his first two seasons with the Panthers that he organized a big retirement party/golf tour of Ireland this summer. He still went golfing with his buddies along the Emerald Isle last month, but instead turned it into a perfect guys' vacation rather than the cherry on top of his retirement sundae.
True to his word when he played with the Bruins, they’ll have to rip the sweater off his back before he’ll say his final goodbyes to the NHL.
“When they offered me another year I sprained my finger signing the thing before they changed their minds,” said Thornton at his Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s golf tournament earlier this week held at the Ferncroft Golf Club. “I’m happy to be back for another year. I’m on borrowed time, and I’m well aware. I’m a realist. I turned 39 a few weeks ago, and the trend of late has been less and less enforcers. I didn’t know where my value was going to be, and I was very comfortable if last year was going to be my last year.
“Obviously ownership and management thinks that having me around is worth their while, and I’m very appreciative of that. I’ve always said that I’d play until they’re rip the skates off me, so I guess that will be another year.”
One thing Thornton laments about the direction of the NHL, though: less fighting and more penalties legislating hockey fights out of the game mean way less opportunities for tough players like No. 22 when he was looking for a foot in the door. The new fighting penalties in the AHL are just the latest in a long line of steps taken by hockey to wipe fisticuffs out of the sport:
-Players who enter into a fight prior to, at, or immediately following the drop of the puck for a faceoff will be assessed an automatic game misconduct in addition to other penalties assessed.
-During the regular season, any player who incurs his 10th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for one game. For each subsequent fighting major up to 13, the player shall also be suspended automatically for one game.
-During the regular season, any player who incurs his 14th fighting major shall be suspended automatically for two games. For each subsequent fighting major, the player shall also be suspended automatically for two games.
-In any instance where the opposing player was assessed an instigator penalty, the fighting major shall not count towards the player’s total for this rule.
Most with the hockey sense they were born with don’t enjoy the staged fighting and most reasonable people around pro hockey understand that concussion lawsuits and long-term damage to the health and well-being of players are going to have a lasting impact on the game. But these kinds of penalties make it increasingly difficult for teams to effectively employ enforcers and for those players to hone their craft to the degree where they’d help an NHL team.
That means a more rapid journey to the point where enforcers will be gone from the NHL landscape and players such as Thornton will no longer grace NHL dressing rooms with their leadership, candor, humor and accountability.
“Twenty years straight I’ve been the worst player on every team I’ve played on, and I’m still doing it,” cracked Thornton with a laugh. “There’s a lot less fighting. My first two years in the minors I was fighting 36 times a year, and now I’m fighting six times a year. It’s a lot easier on the hands. The game is a lot faster now and there are no more one-dimensional players for the most part. They’re all gone.
“There are no more staged fights and I’m okay with that. I always hated doing that. I’m sure a lot of it is insurance stuff. It probably saves a lot of money for owners now having to worry about it. I’m sure they get a better rate. That’s a part of it.
“It’s the way the game is going. That’s part of it. It started with the visors five or six years ago, or whatever it was. It’s unfortunate. I know I never would have made it unless I could cut my teeth in the minors [fighting] 30 times a year. It sucked, but it’s the reason I’m here now. It’s unfortunate that there will be some pretty tough kids that it would have been their foot in the door, and then they could have proven themselves. Otherwise they won’t get that opportunity. On a personal level that probably sucks. They’re trying to make the game safer. This is the way they feel the game is going to be safer. I guess we’ll wait and see.”
So, what will Thornton do when his NHL career likely ends after next season, or in the next couple of years after all the offers have dried up? Thornton had done plenty of TV work for CSN New England in his seven years playing for the Bruins. He was a natural in his radio hits with WEEI, 98.5 the Sports Hub and WAAF in his B’s career. So, it seemed that a job in the sports media was a natural one for Thornto. That seemed a fait accompli when he did TV studio work for NBC Sports a couple of years ago in the playoffs.
But Thornton now thinks he’s moving in a different direction after a couple of years in Florida. Now, he’ll get involved on the business side of hockey once he’s done grinding on the fourth line for the Panthers in a playing capacity.
“I’m probably leaning more on the business side of hockey down there right now. Obviously things can change from year to year and this would have been a different conversation last year,” said Thornton. “But as of right now I’m probably leaning more on the business side of hockey, and I’m leaning more toward that in Florida when this year is over.
“[Panthers ownership] is very involved. They’re very visible. They take a lot of pride in what they’re doing down there. That’s just how Mr. [Vincent] Viola and Mr. [Douglas] Cifu are. It’s not just me. They’re in the room all the time. It’s different, but that’s how he is with all of his businesses from what I’m told. I think Virtu [Financial, Viola's company] only has like 100 employees and they do a lot of business. He knows everybody by name and he’s on top of everything. It’s different, but I love it. I think the opportunity and the upside [is great on the business side]. I did a lot of media and I thought that’s exactly where I was going [post-career]. But if the opportunity is still there to get into learning something new on the business side of sports, I just see a ton of upside in that for longer in life.”
Don’t worry about No. 22 completely “going Florida” though, folks. Thornton said he plans to keep his residences in both Florida and in Charlestown, even if last year’s tenant Kevan Miller is moving on to bigger digs after signing a four-year, $10 million contract with the Bruins.
“We’ve talked about it. I don’t see me getting rid of the place in Charlestown anytime soon,” said Thornton. “Obviously Millsy signed that huge deal, so he’s probably not renting anymore. He probably bought a mansion on the water somewhere.
“But if we can keep it and find somebody to rent it out [we will]. We definitely don’t want to get rid of it. I miss it here. When I come back, it’s nostalgic. Every time I walk into my condo I’m like ‘God, I miss it here.’ I’m very spoiled to be able to have two places, and hopefully I’ll be able to keep them.”
There’s little question given the turnout at Thornton’s Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s charity golf tournament this week that people around Boston still feel the same way about him as well.
*Remember folks, Jimmy Vesey becomes a free agent at the end of the day on Monday and he can sign with a new team on Tuesday. The 23-year-old Hobey Baker winner is the hottest priority on the hockey market, and the Maple Leafs, Bruins, Sabres, Blackhawks, Rangers and Devils are all hoping they are the NHL suitor ultimately selected.
My own personal guess on Vesey: I’m not sure who he is going to pick, but I’ve been told by enough hockey people that it won’t be the Bruins, so I don’t think it will be them. Could Don Sweeney and the B’s have a surprise up their sleeve on Tuesday? Perhaps, and I think it will take something like that or a number of other teams suddenly, surprisingly dropping out that are favored over the Black and Gold. I wouldn’t count on that happening. It would be another tough blow for Sweeney and Cam Neely if Vesey chooses anybody but Boston. It would be another offseason where the Bruins had to settle rather than set the tone. That’s not good.
*Interesting that Tuukka Rask is working out in Finland at this point in the summer when he’s usually come back to Boston and played in Thornton’s charity golf tournament in mid-August. Perhaps the Bruins goaltender is carrying a little extra motivation after last season’s disappointing season for the team and disappointing ending for Rask individually. A highly motivated Rask would be a very good thing come October when the regular season gets going.
*Congrats to Kim Brandvold, the skills and skating coach with the Bruins who has been named head coach for the Central Catholic high school hockey team in Lawrence, Mass. The former UMass-Lowell standout defenseman has carved out a nice hockey career for himself in Boston after sticking around following his collegiate career with the RiverHawks.
*Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.