June 2019 will mark 18 years since the greatest singular moment in NHL history. On June 9, 2001, the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, by winning Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils. Avalanche defenseman Ray Bourque had played 22 seasons without winning the Stanley Cup. After 20.5 seasons with the Bruins, (including two Stanley Cup final appearances) and 1.5 seasons with the Avalanche, Bourque was finally able to lift the Stanley Cup.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Bourque played the most games by any player in history before finally winning the Cup. In total Bourque played 1,612 regular season games and 214 playoff games before winning the Stanley Cup as a 40-year old. He was absolutely beloved in Boston during his Hall of Fame career.
Flash forward nearly two decades and another former Boston Bruin has a chance to win the Stanley Cup for the first time after a long and storied career. The San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton is currently 39-years old. If the Sharks win the Stanley Cup this playoff, Thornton will win his first Cup just a month shy of his 40th birthday. If it wasn’t for the missed lockout season of 2004-05, this season would also be Thornton’s 22nd in the NHL, just like it was Bourque’s.
Thornton has played in 1,566 regular season games and 167 playoff games. He is without a doubt a first ballot Hall of Fame player, even if the NHL Network failed to include him in their now infamous top-100 players list. Thornton certainly isn’t beloved in Boston like Bourque was, but he is absolutely adored in San Jose.
When Thornton was traded to San Jose from Boston in late November of 2005, the Sharks were in the midst of a 10-game winless streak. While San Jose had made a Cinderella-esque run to the Western Conference final in 2003-04 prior to the lockout, they finished 12th in the Western Conference in 2002-03, and had never been a true contender. While the Sharks were known for first-round upsets in the 1990s over the Detroit Red Wings (1994), Calgary Flames (1995) and St. Louis Blues (2000), they had never had the caliber center of a Joe Thornton in his prime.
Thornton would immediately turn the Sharks around with a 5-0 win in Buffalo in his Sharks debut. He would go on to win the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP in 2005-06, finishing with 125 points, a single-season total that has since only been surpassed by Nikita Kucherov here in 2019. Every year since 2005-06, Thornton has been the bus driver and emotional leader for the Sharks. Despite losing the captaincy after the 2013-14 season, Thornton has still chosen to remain a Shark. In recent years he has been willing to take discounts to allow General Manager Doug Wilson to keep and sign other key players. It’s only too easy to see why he is beloved in San Jose. Everything he does is “for the boys,” —one of his favorite things to say.
Of course there’s also the colorful remarks Thornton gave in 2013 defending then rookie teammate Tomas Hertl. This season as a 39-year old, Thornton has also willingly accepted a lesser role as a third-line center. He’s taken youngsters Kevin Labanc and Marcus Sorensen under his wing as linemates, creating matchup problems for opposing coaches.
This season Thornton is also a finalist for the Masterton Trophy that is awarded annually for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Stories upon stories can be found around the internet about how much Thornton loves to play the game. These last two seasons Thornton has seen his season end with ACL and MCL tears. When have we ever heard of a player in his late 30s coming back from a single ACL tear, much less back-to-back seasons ending in the same brutal injury? The finalist nod for the Masterton Trophy is extremely well deserved.
Thornton loves playing so much that regardless of how the Sharks finish the season, there is a good chance he returns to play his 22nd season next year. But even though he may return, (which he’s likelier to do if the Sharks fail to win the Cup this year), his Sharks teammates must be desperate to get the job done this season. Not only is it a distinct possibility that this is his last season, it is arguably the best chance he’s ever had, and ever will have.
San Jose has never had the same level of star power and depth that they have this season. Of course there are the big names in Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. But the Sharks also have 50+ point guys this year in Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl, Gustav Nyquist and Kevin Labanc. One could make the argument that even with all their star power, the Sharks’ depth is just as impressive.
However, along with Thornton himself, Pavelski and Karlsson are going to be unrestricted free agents this summer. In addition, Meier and Labanc are restricted free agents. It will be extremely difficult for the Sharks to pay everyone, even if Thornton were to play for the veteran minimum. Not to mention, everyone will be yet another year older, Thornton will be 40 going on 41, Pavelski will be 35 going on 36, Burns will be 34, Vlasic 32.
With all the uncertainty facing the Sharks this summer, the time is now. San Jose just came back from the dead in the most unfathomable, inconceivable first-round series in franchise history against the Vegas Knights. They avenged a brutal injury to captain Pavelski in Game 7. Furthermore, most of the other teams that were thought to be Cup contenders this season were knocked out in round one. Tampa Bay is out, Washington is out, Pittsburgh is out, Nashville, Winnipeg and Calgary, out, out, out.
It’s time for the San Jose Sharks to knock one out of the park.
It’s time to send Thornton out into the sunset with his Ray-Bourque moment.
Knowing Thornton though, even with a Cup ring, he will probably return for the sunrise in September. He’ll sign yet another one-year contract from the seat of his lawn mower in Ontario.