September 28, 2010
One of the reasons the San Jose Sharks advanced to the Western Conference finals last spring was coach Todd McLellan's ability to push the right motivational buttons for his players.
The Sharks weren't necessarily mean last postseason, but they were defiant: Overcoming an upset bid from the Colorado Avalanche and then plowing through the Detroit Red Wings in five games, before getting swept in the conference final by the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Constantly dogged by accusations that he underachieves in the playoffs, Thornton carried the torch in the win over the Red Wings: Eight points in four games, including three goals (along with a bit of a meltdown in Game 4). He's their catalyst in the regular season, too: Leading the Sharks in scoring during every full season he's been in San Jose. No wonder he's in the conversation for captain.
Thornton and the Sharks return this season with some confidence from last season's playoff run and some significant changes: Like Evgeni Nabokov(notes) leaving for Russia, giving the Sharks a new look in goal for the first time since 2000. Antero Niittymaki(notes) and Antti Niemi(notes) take over this season between the pipes.
"We thought Niemi was the difference in that Blackhawks series," said Thornton, who acknowledged that he and his teammates hope that the change in goal could be the variable that puts the Sharks over the top in the postseason.
We spoke with Thornton about last year's run and the Sharks' quest for a Cup; the personnel changes for the rival Chicago Blackhawks; his impending free agency next summer, and whether the Ilya Kovalchuk(notes) contract case changed anything for his talks with San Jose; the mystery of Jonathan Cheechoo(notes); 3-on-3 overtime; HBO's "24/7" and the Sharks in a Winter Classic; Patrick Marleau's(notes) eyebrows; his co-starring with a dummy in commercials; as well as our usual queries about cars, music and booze. Enjoy.
Q. It seems like the same storyline's been written about the Sharks for the last several seasons: They'll dominate in the first 82 games, and then all bets are off when they reach the playoffs. Is that how you see it too?
THORNTON: Well, we don't think about it that way in our locker room. You always have to play the regular season. No one's given a playoff berth. We felt last year how close we are. Once you make that next step, I think we're then ready to make the next step after that.
When you went through Detroit in the semifinals last postseason, did you have a sense of destiny? Like, 'We finally conquered them, and now it's our turn'?
Yeah, you do. You win any series and you get a boost, but especially against Detroit. They've been in the finals the last two years and nobody's beat 'em except for Pittsburgh, and that took 'em seven games. For us to beat them like we did in five games ... yeah, you feel good about yourselves. Like there was only one team that could knock them off and now we're the second. But it's all good.
It's a business, and we're dealing with a salary-cap era, but did it shock you how much dismantling had to go on in Chicago this summer?
Yeah, I was really shocked. But like you said it's a cap era. They still have a great team down there. They still have their core with Toews and Kane and Seabrook and Keith and Sharp. They still have tons of studs. They just lost a guy here and there.
That said: Is there a certain amount of enthusiasm that they might not be the same team you lost to in the playoffs?
Oh, we hope [so]. Hopefully if we meet them again, we can turn it around and do the sweep on them this time. But it remains to be seen.
They're the Cup champs. Someone's going to have to go through Chicago to win the Cup this year. They got a taste of what it takes, and they'll be ready again this postseason.
Last year was an odd one for one of your linemates, Patrick Marleau, going from having the captaincy taken away to nearly having a career year. What were your thoughts about him?
He really did whatever was best for the team. He would say that whatever would help us win the Cup, he was willing to do that. He never changed his personality all year. He enjoys coming to the rink everyday, and he works harder than anyone else in this league. He was a true professional last year and he took it all in stride.
Do you ever marvel at his eyebrows?
Never! [Laughter] That's a great question. I never really look at them too much, I guess. I try not to look at guys in the eyes too much.
Well, c'mon, you're like 6-foot-5. How many guys are you looking at eye level?
Yeah, that's true.
It was a contract year for Marleau last season, and it's a contract year for you this season. You were mentioned as one of those guys that might be affected by the CBA loophole for long-term deals being closed post-Kovalchuk. Was that kind of cap-massaging deal ever something you were considering for your next contract with the Sharks?
I've always signed three-year deals. I don't know why. I've never thought about signing a 15-year deal in my entire life. So much can happen in 15 years. For that whole escapade to go on, I never thought it was going to affect me at all, to be honest with you.
You called it an "escapade"; what was the reaction in the room to someone signing a 17-year, $102 million contract?
We were fine with it. We're all pro players -- get as much as you can, it doesn't matter to us. But how many years ... the dough ... it was crazy. I think if the NHL had let that pass, it would have been a stepping stone for a lot of other contracts to go that way. But [the New Jersey Devils] still got the player that they wanted.
Were you impressed with how the NHLPA handled itself in the Kovalchuk case?
I think so. I think with Donald [Fehr] being there, it calms the nerves now and in the future. I thought they handled themselves great, to be honest with you.
I don't mind 3-on-3 at all. If you go into overtime, why not just go 3-on-3 right away? I love the shootout. I think the fans love the shootout. So I'd go 3-on-3 right into the shootout. I know our fans out here absolutely love [the shootout].
Switching gears: What was it like working with the dummy last year in those commercials?
It was the greatest ever! It's a great marketing tool. Something different, something fun for the fans. It shows another side of the guys on the ice, without the helmet. That they like to have fun just like everybody else.
From last year? When he was out-thrown by the girl?
It's the funniest commercial you'll see all year.
I think it's great. I'm a big fan of HBO, and watched the "24/7" with Manny Pacquiao, and "Hard Knocks" with the Jets and the Cowboys. I think for hockey it's going to be super and for the fans it's going to be great.
Hockey players have this reputation of being a tad camera shy and reserved. You think hockey translates for a show like this?
That's certainly true, but I think that it could work. You have so many characters in the dressing rooms. I think we have the best athletes in the world. I want to showcase them.
Are you ever frustrated that being on a California team, your chances for a Winter Classic appearance are rather slim?
It doesn't bother me. Sure, it'd be great: We all grew up in our backyard rink. Who knows, maybe one day we'll play at Stanford, outdoors. Never say never. [The Rose Bowl] would be great, too. The hockey market is getting bigger and bigger out here, with kids playing and getting drafted.
Both. [Laughter] But the fans really don't like L.A. I don't know what it is. It probably stems from the Giants, too, who really don't like the L.A. Dodgers. But we don't like either team.
One of your old linemates was in the news last weekend: Jonathan Cheechoo, who was released from a tryout contract with the Dallas Stars. Everyone's wondered what happened to this guy after his breakout year; what's your take?
He battled a bunch of injuries here. He had some hernias, things like that. But I think in pro sports, your confidence is everything. I think he lost a little confidence, and that goes a long way.
No, not at all. Devin has plenty of confidence. I don't see him ever losing his confidence, to be honest with you.
Outside of your own jersey, your most favorite and least favorite in the NHL?
My favorite would be the Leafs. Maybe the Nashville Predators [for the least].
Where do you keep your 2010 Olympic gold medal?
It's in a frame in my house.
What's on your iPod these days?
I haven't listened to an iPod forever. I like the Tragically Hip, and I listen to some Neil Young. Having the kid (Ed. Note: Thornton and his wife have a 12-week-old daughter) ... maybe I'll starting listening to it on the road again, but I haven't listened to anything lately.
What are you driving these days?
So you have to wait until you get that new contract, huh?
Exactly. Then I can refresh.
Best card player, worst card player in the Sharks locker room?
We ask this of everyone we interview: Your adult beverage of choice, sir?
Either vodka/water or Bacardi and coke.
So it's like wine: You've got your lights and your darks.
Exactly! I never thought about it like that.
Finally, do you have any message for anyone that drafted you in the first round of their fantasy league?
Good job. It's going to be a good year. Those are smart people.