Shawn Thornton has done everything in the NHL – except being a Leaf

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Shawn Thornton wouldn’t trade his NHL memories for the world; a hard-won minor league break, Stanley Cups in Anaheim and Boston, 100 points and 100 playoff games ahead with 1,000 penalty minutes and now Twilight years in the Sunshine State in the Panthers front office.

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Okay, maybe one little thing could have been different, back when the Oshawa native was a farm laborer from Toronto trying to find his way into his childhood team.

“I wish I could have played just one game for the Leafs before I retired,” Thornton said in a conversation about his new book, Make my way to the top .

“Growing up in Oshawa was the ultimate goal. I’m not complaining, because after a long stint in the minors (642 games), I ended up having a very rewarding NHL career (810 games) in amazing cities. But at that point, Tie Domi was still there, Wade Belak, rest his soul, Kris King – all established NHL players doing this job. It probably wasn’t going to happen, no matter how successful I was there. “

So his blue-and-white experience began and ended with the St. John’s Leafs, four difficult years in the AHL maritime division. He passed many of those heading for the Gardens and the Air Canada Center; Danny Markov, Tomas Kaberle, Alyn McCauley and future NHL coaches and general managers DJ Smith, Dallas Eakins and Kevyn Adams.

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Their common experience was the 4,000-seat St. John’s Memorial Arena where a wide-eyed Thornton arrived in 1997, an end-round pick of the Peterborough Petes. When Leafs assistant general manager Bill Watters called to greet him on draft day, Thornton thought it was a joke and told Watters to ‘fuck’, but moved on this faux pas to becoming a local favorite. The day he disembarked, his gregarious taxi driver offered a fish dinner at his home.

“St. John’s was a wonderful city with even better people. We players have never done without The Rock. When I got married, I had about 30 Newfies – three or four years after I left.

“It’s winter from the time you get there until the time you go. But DJ, Donald MacLean and I lived in the same house. The living room had sliding glass doors and when the snow hit our ceiling. we just opened the doors and stuck beers in the snowbank to really chill them while we relaxed after a game.

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“My car was buried while we were traveling, a small two-door. We had a few cases of beer, some pizza and had a party to dig them up. “

Thornton appeared to be born to boxer, named after John Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man, a favorite of his Belfast-born grandmother. And as the son of a steelworker, whom he had seen in a few fights and raised on the hockey code to protect his teammates, 16-year-old Shawn needed little encouragement to seek out boxing coach Lionel. Ingleton.

“He taught me to compartmentalize when I needed to prepare for a job, without a fight,” Thornton praised.

Thornton made a strong impression in a midget tournament, beating a bigger player who had led the Oshawa goaltender. Jeff Twohey of the Petes, the only scout left for the game, took note. Physical labor at a factory in Oshawa also supplemented her 6ft 2in and 217lb. By the time he made St. John’s he had acquired a certain psychology behind the application of hockey from experts such as Greg (Bird Dog) Smyth: push the envelope every now and then, to make enemies think you. are a little crazy and avoid the hassle of having to drop the gloves every night.

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“I might have done the heavy lifting in St. John’s for a few years, but I had a pretty good supporting cast with Dennis Maxwell, Smitty, Jeff Ware and Bird Dog. But every team in that division had five or six guys to think about every night. No surprise, I had 35 fights each year. Or maybe I just couldn’t get away fast enough.

Playing in Toronto for Pat Quinn would have been the ideal Irish connection, but the Leafs did not qualify him after 2001. He went to the Blackhawks branch in Norfolk, where coach Trent Yawney was unimpressed with his. Slap Shot theatricality. They’ve struck a deal, only fight when absolutely necessary, and are rewarded with more ice time and special team homework.

Thornton got some callbacks for the Blackhawks, a half-season with Anaheim in which he made 15 playoff games as GM Brian Burke’s side won the ’07 Cup. That summer, several teams were fighting over this suddenly hot UFA.

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“(President of the Bruins) Cam Neely called me on free agent day and said” this city appreciates players like you “and I knew it was the DNA of the city and the cities that made it happen. surround.

“These were the glory days. I was able to win a Cup and be part of very close teams. Even the years we didn’t win, we had pretty good success.

Like in 2013 when the B’s broke hearts in the GTA, rallying a 4-1 hole in Game 7 to stun the Leafs with Thornton having “one of the best seats in the house” that night. .

“We were a confident team, who had been through so much, like in 2010 (losing a 3-0 series lead to Philly and a 3-0 lead in Game 7). So in this game we knew anything was possible. We scored our second goal, mobilized our audience and felt the momentum.

“I was supposed to play golf with (ex-Leaf) Clarke MacArthur the other day and he joked ‘I don’t want to do that and be reminded of this series on every hole.’

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Through tragic circumstances, Boston became even dearer to Thornton. Shaken by the Marathon bombing a month before the Leafs’ series, Thornton stepped up the discreet visits to the hospitals he had started in St. John’s. He wanted to give the survivors their space, but felt he had to do something. He brought team material to private hearings with victims such as Jeff Bauman, the 27-year-old who lost both legs but had identified one of the bombers.

Five years later, near his home in Parkland, Fla., Thornton was moving into his new job as Panthers business manager when a high school gunman Marjory Stoneman Douglas killed 17 people and injured many. others, including a neighbor’s daughter.

The Panthers’ estate has asked Thornton to lead their efforts to help the community cope. He quickly sought contact with the Bruins and Red Sox who had helped after the Marathon bombings, who guided him through the next difficult days.

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“I had this strong support network and needed everyone. With the bombings – and Boston is obviously still healing – if the hockey team could have a three-hour release to clear their heads, that was our goal. Behind the scenes at Parkland, we were doing everything we could after MSD. You’re trying to thread that needle because you don’t want people to think you are (high standing). Most of the athletes who were helping, nobody even noticed.

“The lesson I learned from the Marathon and MSD was that you just have to listen. You can’t just pretend you know how to support. Everyone will have their own emotional state resulting from something like this. A family may need something different from the same tragedy.

At a time when law enforcement officials have made public the physical and mental toll of their past lives, Thornton, 44, has his own thoughts.

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“I knew what I was signing up for. Is it an easy job? No. Is there a risk? Yes. Can it be stressful? Yes. But there is stress in all areas. I have friends who are firefighters, police officers, and I would say their jobs are far more stressful and dangerous than mine has ever been – and for a lot less money.

“I handle a lot of important business aspects for an NHL team and I feel like I’m doing it at a high level. I don’t think they would put me in charge if they thought there were some issues my head was in. “

The book is written with NESN TV host Dale Arnold with a preface by Tuukka Rask and interviews with Bruins teammates, Panthers leaders, and family members.

“I had to be convinced to write it. I don’t like to talk about myself, but I was convinced that it was a unique story that could be motivating for someone who was not a star, who had to solve it. Two take-out meals; Giving back is very important whether you have a platform or not and if you work hard enough for something good things happen.

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