By Kevin Kurz Oct 16, 2020
Logan Couture was still in his mid-teens when he met Joe Thornton for the first time.
Joe’s father, Wayne Thornton, would often attend St. Thomas Stars games outside of Toronto, near his home in London, Ontario. Couture played for the Junior B team there in 2004-05, where he was a nearly point-per-game player.
Wayne noticed Couture’s dominance, and it eventually led to John Thornton, Wayne’s other son and also Joe’s agent, becoming Couture’s agent, too. Couture and John Thornton attended a Bruins-Maple Leafs game together while Joe was still playing for Boston, and afterward, they all met up after the game for a brief hello.
Just a couple of years later, Couture would become the Sharks’ first-round draft pick, after the team traded up to select him ninth overall in 2007. Shortly thereafter, Couture and Thornton became teammates, which they’ve been ever since.
Thornton’s 15-year run with the Sharks is over, as he signed a one-year, $700,000 contract (and a no-movement clause) with the Maple Leafs to try and win a Stanley Cup for the first time in a storied career that will eventually result in his enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Thornton, 41, called Couture, the Sharks’ captain, about an hour before Toronto made the announcement on Twitter to let him know.
“Just talked to him briefly. Very respectful of him to call guys on our team,” Couture said in a phone interview on Friday. “To call and let us know before the news broke, that’s just who Joe is. Such a respectful person.”
Respectful, and, of course, a dominant presence both on and off the ice. Thornton essentially remade the Sharks in his image after the blockbuster trade on Nov. 30, 2005, helping the organization reach the playoffs in 13 of his 15 seasons here, including an appearance in the 2016 Stanley Cup Final and four trips to the Western Conference final. Further, the Sharks’ dressing room was often lauded for how welcoming a place it was, and how much fun they all had as a group together. Thornton was the primary reason.
No one, they would all tell you, has more fun than he does.
“He’s one of a kind, and not anyone else like him,” Brent Burns said via text message. “Worked so hard. Special teammate and friend, and still plays at such a high level. … Tough to see him go, but happy for him going back home near his family. I know how much they will all love that.”
“Words can’t express what Jumbo has meant for my career,” Patrick Marleau added via text message.”I love him like a brother, and I know he will be an amazing influence for the Leafs. Our loss is their gain, no question.”
Thornton was heartbroken last February when it seemed like it was a sure thing that he would get traded to a contender from a Sharks team that was well out of the race. A few days before the trade deadline prior to a Sharks game at Madison Square Garden, he essentially admitted that he was ready to move on for a shot at his first championship.
When the trade deadline came and went a couple of days later and Thornton remained in teal, though, he expressed his disappointment publicly in the visitors dressing room at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The comments were notable particularly because Thornton rarely displays such candidness when there are cameras or microphones pointed in his direction.
Couture could sense Thornton’s disappointment, too.
“That was a tough one,” he said. ”I spent some of that (trade deadline) day with him at the hotel. As a friend, as someone who wants to see Joe Thornton win a Stanley Cup, I was disappointed he didn’t get that opportunity last year. I think he was disappointed, as well. Sometimes Joe doesn’t hide his emotions well. We all do that.
“I think everyone that was around him the following days could see he was a little disappointed. But, he still was a true professional and still a great teammate with the Sharks. He took on his role of embracing the younger players on the team and being a leader as he always has. Nothing changed as to how he went about his business.”
In Toronto, Thornton will surely play a lesser role than he’s used to. The Maple Leafs still feature some of the game’s best players, including John Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Thornton is one of a number of veterans that Toronto added this offseason, including Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian. Despite not getting out of the first round of the playoffs since 2004, the Maple Leafs are aiming for a Stanley Cup.
The Sharks, meanwhile, have had a fairly quiet offseason. They acquired a new goaltender in Devan Dubnyk and added wingers Ryan Donato and Matt Nieto, but have avoided any major transactions. The core group that finished last in the Western Conference in 2019-20 remains intact, making it difficult to see the team truly competing for a championship next season.
That undoubtedly played a role in Thornton’s decision, which had come down to either the Sharks or Maple Leafs.
Thornton’s numbers were a bit down last season, as he posted 31 points (7g, 24a) in 70 games. Still, he spent most of his minutes over the first half with Marcus Sorensen, who was among the Sharks’ most disappointing players, and Kevin Labanc, who still struggled to play in all three zones.
Late in the season, Thornton was bumped up to the top line when injuries sidelined Couture and Tomas Hertl. Paired with better linemates, including Timo Meier, Thornton showed he could still be an effective player. He posted 12 points (5g, 7a) in his final 19 games before the season was abruptly halted.
Couture is convinced he can help Toronto.
“There’s no doubt in my mind. No doubt in my mind Joe Thornton can still be an effective NHL player. No doubt,” Couture said.
“I’ve watched him every day. It was a privilege to watch him every day in practice, and how hard he trains off the ice. The way he takes care of his body. … He’s going to help that team a lot. All those players are going to be very lucky to have spent at least one year with him as a teammate. They’ll learn a lot about the game, a lot about how to be a better teammate and better person. People in Toronto, those players, are very fortunate.”
In San Jose, though, things will be different. Not only will the dressing room be a quieter place, but the Sharks will have to rely on younger and/or unproven players to fill out their lineup for the coming season.
“I guess it’s fair to say that I’m still kind of numb about it,” Couture said. “But at the same time, it’s his choice, and I as well as everyone in this organization respects him for everything that he’s done for this organization for all of us players, and he deserves the right to choose what he wants to do as a free agent. … He’s meant so much for my career.”
Thornton ranks seventh on the NHL’s all-time assists list with 1,089, and 14th in points with 1,509. He is second all-time in Sharks franchise history in points, with 1,055 in 1,104 games. He is one of just seven NHL players with at least 1,500 games played, 1,000 assists and 400 goals. Thornton, the first overall pick by the Bruins in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 2005-06 and is a six-time All-Star.