He is the first “the guy” the Sharks franchise has ever had.
Don’t get me wrong, as a kid growing up in the 1990s, Owen Nolan was an inspiration, and in the early 90s, guys like Igor Larionov and Sandis Ozolinsh (among others) were fantastic. And Patrick Marleau deservedly owns the moniker of “Mr. Shark.”
But none of those guys were ever the most valuable player of the entire league.
Joe Thornton was the MVP of the league during the 2005-06 season where he was traded to San Jose.
The Sharks were in the midst of a 10-game winless streak. Thornton pretty much single-handedly saved the franchise from missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons and who knows how many more after that.
He is the closest thing this franchise has ever had to a Steph Curry. Although Erik Karlsson may challenge for that title in the future, as things currently stand, Thornton is the biggest superstar the team has ever had.
And also like Curry, he’s always been a real likeable guy. Few players get consistently talked about as guys who have never had a bad day at the rink. Thornton is one of them.
From the first time he suited up as a Shark, you just knew he was something special and would be around for a long time. In that first game with the Sharks he helped snap the losing streak in Buffalo, a place San Jose never wins, by picking up two assists in a 5-0 thumping.
Surely tears of joy from fans of all ages will be shed if Thornton wins the Cup and when he retires, but for those of us who grew up with the Sharks, it would be even more emotional. The older generations of Bay Area hockey fans adopted the Sharks. Those of us fans of the millennial generation, we were born and raised in teal, the fandom is instilled in us like a baby learns a language, it’s a deeper part of us, we truly bleed teal. We’ve soaked up the Shark fandom like a sponge. We’ve never known what it was like to not be a Sharks fan.
Having been born the same month that the Sharks first played a regular season game (October 1991), I had just turned 14 come November 2005 when Thornton was acquired from the Boston Bruins in exchange for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. Perhaps 14 doesn’t sound young, but I was so naive that my initial reaction to the trade was of heartbreak and anger. Three players for one guy? I love all three of those guys! How can we give up three key players for just one dude?
Well, when that one dude turns out to be one of the top 25 greatest players of all time, that’s how a three-for-one trade ends up a steal for the team receiving “just” one.
Flash forward to 2019, this October will mark my 28th birthday and it’s difficult to remember the last time the Sharks didn’t have Joe Thornton on the roster. One of my most cherished memories was attending my first Sharks playoff game in 2004, a game they won in overtime. But I sure as heck don’t remember how the team was constructed, nor what my expectations were going into the season.
Whenever Thornton decides to call it quits, it will be a stomach punch. There will be a severe empty feeling that will be difficult to replace for years to come. It will be an even bigger stomach punch if he retires without having won the Stanley Cup.