It may be payback for old 'robbery'

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

Everything balances out eventually in sports, making the Boston Bruins' latest blockbuster trade and comparisons with their all-time jaw-dropper intriguing.

If the parallels continue, Joe Thornton is in for some exciting times now that the St. Thomas native has gone coast-to-coast in exchange for San Jose Sharks Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.

You wonder whether the Bruins are getting paid back for the daylight robbery they got away with when they worked a deal that helped them to two Stanley Cups.

That was 38 years ago. Boston caught the Chicago Blackhawks management napping and, without benefit of gun or mask, walked out the door with Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield in exchange for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin and Jack Norris.

Old-time Chicago mob boss Al Capone nearly jumped out of his grave cheering the Beantowners' grand larceny.

Esposito went on an immediate scoring surge -- or scourge, if you were a goalie -- of monumental numbers. In order, he responded to his new surroundings with seasons of 49, 43, 76, 66, 55, 68 and 61 goals along with a small mountain of all-star, scoring and MVP hardware.

The deal still ranks down there with the Great Chicago Fire among unpopular events in Windy City history.

The impact of the Thornton trade was best seen in the shattering of TSN analyst Pierre Maguire's normal calm. The offence to Maguire's sense of hockey rectitude was obvious during his between-periods defence of Thornton Wednesday night.

"It just bothers me so much that the Bruins never protected him (from mounting criticism)," Maguire said last night from Montreal. "Guy Lafleur was always protected here and we defended our players when I was an assistant at Pittsburgh. He's a franchise player and they never stood up for him."

There are physical parallels between Thornton and Espo. Esposito also was a big, rangy centre. Most of his goals came from directly in front of the net, moving one commentator to suggest Esposito's 717 career goals totalled a distance of about 29 feet.

More important is a certain symmetry in their personalities. Laid-back covers it. But laid-back and uncaring are two different things and Thornton is being accused of lacking spark, of not leading the Bruins to the heights they'd projected for him.

But the big captain's nine goals, 24 assists through the first 23 games is a production level any player would be proud of. And by all accounts, he was playing well.

Something else clearly sparked the trade. Usually, when a franchise player is summarily traded away for what certainly appears to be a questionable return package, you look for something off-ice as a trigger, such as inappropriate behavior or squabbles with management. Since none of this fits, it's the next obvious thing -- money.

The Bruins get to immediately lop a bundle from their $39-million payroll while adding a trio that includes much-needed blue-line help in Stuart. Since the no-trade part of Thornton's three-year, $20-million contract doesn't kick in until next year, the window to cut a deal was closing at the same pace Boston management was panicking after losing nine of their past 10 games.

Only time will tell whether the payroll relief the Bruins granted themselves will match on-ice returns. Thornton, meantime, can look to a guy like Espo for inspiration.

While a Blackhawk, Esposito was considered a highly promising but relaxed kid sometimes seen sitting in the corner of the dressing room munching popcorn before a game.

It was a jolt to be traded, too, but it was the best thing that ever happened to him. Highlighted by his impassioned television plea on behalf of Team Canada '72 after the team was booed in Vancouver, he turned out to be anything but uninspired.

It should be pointed out that turning up with the Bruins just as Bobby Orr was blossoming didn't hurt, nor did the presence of such talents as Jean Ratelle.

At San Jose, Thornton joins the guy who was No. 2 behind him in the 1997 draft, Patrick Marleau. Neither could have guessed, as they played a spirited board game in a Philadelphia hotel that day as rookie invitees to the Stanley Cup final, they'd be teammates any more than Thornton could imagine one day playing with cousin Scott Thornton with the Sharks.

It all balances out in the end. At first blush, you'd have to say this Boston deal tilts San Jose's way.

"I just spoke to three Western Conference general managers and none of them is very happy they'll be seeing a lot more of Joe Thornton," Maguire said.


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