Thornton's trek cautionary tale for star prospects

PATRICK MALONEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

Ten years on, the picture that once hung in Joe Thornton's St. Thomas bedroom as a symbol of dreams may now be an homage to unfulfilled possibilities.

This weekend marks a decade since Thornton -- one of the best hockey players in the world -- was drafted first overall by a rebuilding Boston Bruins franchise in search of a saviour. On his bedroom wall back then was the iconic photo of Bobby Orr flying through the air after netting the 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Bruins.

Things to come, perhaps.

But now, the image may be just a reminder of Thornton's rough luck in Boston and the team's inability to reach the heights so many thought possible that June day in 1997.

"Think of the possibilities," fellow Boston prospect Cameron Mann said during the 1997 training camp. "You look around here and see Thornton and (then-rookie Sergei) Samsonov and you think we could win the Stanley Cup here."

But the Bruins' future is now history.

And Thornton's journey to stardom holds lessons for Patrick Kane, Sam Gagner and these other top prospects.

Thornton is undoubtedly one of hockey's brightest stars. He's won a Hart Trophy as MVP. He's coming off two straight 100-plus-point seasons. He joined Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as the only players to rattle off 90 assists in consecutive years.

But none of that happened with Boston.

He arrived in 1997 into the gruff embrace of coach Pat Burns, who once said Thornton could develop into "Ray Bourque or . . . a mediocre player."

Boston had just missed its first playoffs in 30 years and Thornton was to be the cornerstone of their rebuilding process. But through his first 17 NHL games that fall, Thornton had no points. He was just 18, but the Bruins fans showered him with boos. Despite becoming an all-star, he was given a rough ride by the city's sports writers. He played hurt in the playoffs and was criticized for his efforts.

So he was traded in late 2005 to San Jose in a lopsided deal that may say a lot more about the Bruins than it does about Thornton. The former saviour was almost given away, so he responded by scoring without mercy for the Sharks.

He then etched another piece of hockey history that year, becoming the first player to be traded during the season he was named NHL MVP.

While playoff success eludes him, Thornton has truly established himself as one of the NHL's best players.

But it didn't happen without years of struggle.

And though his odyssey is far from over, it could serve as a cautionary tale for this year's crop of NHL prospects.

"I play with a lot of intensity, a lot of heart," Thornton said days after the blockbuster trade to San Jose. "I gave my soul and heart to the Boston Bruins."


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