Thornton’s love for hockey leads him to remarkable milestone
Thornton will play in his 1500th career NHL game tonight in Dallas
SAN JOSE – Both Marcus Sorensen and Barclay Goodrow were still in awe.
Here they were, two forwards who were basically still learning to skate 20 years ago, talking Tuesday about what it was like to be on the same line with a veteran of 1,499 NHL games in Joe Thornton.
“He’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” said Goodrow, who had the game-winning goal in the Sharks’ 4-3 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
“It’s an honor to play with him,” said Sorensen, who had his first career three-point game.
Thornton, 39, will become the 19th player in NHL history to play in 1,500 games Thursday when the Sharks visit the Dallas Stars to start a quick two-game road trip. In 20-plus seasons, he’s played 967 games with the Sharks, second-most in franchise history behind Patrick Marleau (1,493).
Ideally, Thornton would’ve reached this milestone last season. But in his 1,493rd game on Jan. 23 against the Winnipeg Jets, a mid-ice collision with then-teammate Mikkel Boedker resulted in torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.
Thornton was, at that point, just starting to feel his old self again after he had surgery in April 2017 to repair the same exact injury, only to his left knee.
But if Thornton ever grew frustrated or depressed with having to go through a long rehabilitation in back-to-back offseasons, it didn’t show. He knew he still wanted to play and was going to do whatever it required to get back on the ice.
“That’s not Jumbo,” said Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, who started his NHL career on the same line with Thornton. “Maybe other guys, but Jumbo, he was saying, ‘I will be back.’
“Right away after he was injured (in 2017) he was like, ‘Give me two weeks, I’ll be back.’ He was always positive. He just wanted to play hockey. He loves the game.”
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson has seen everything that Thornton has gone through.
“He does things that people don’t even know or see to be able to play,” he said. “If he ever shared his actual routine with everybody, people would not believe it. But you don’t put that much work in if you don’t truly, truly don’t love it. This is a really special person.”
Nights like Tuesday, when Thornton scored his 399th career goal and helped two young teammates have unforgettable games, would seem to help make the huge task of coming back worthwhile.
It also demonstrated Sharks center Joe Thornton, left, talks to Erik Karlsson, right, during practice at Solar4america Ice in San Jose during training camp in September.
that he can still be an effective player in a league that is getting faster by the season.
Reaching 1,500 games “is really hard to do, and it’s even harder to do in the era that Joe’s in right now,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Stevens, who played 1,635 games from 1982-2004 and is now an analyst for NHL Network.
“The way the game has changed, hats off to Joe to figure out how to stay effective and be as good as he has been in a different era.”
Of the 18 players who have reached this plateau, 14 are in the Hockey Hall
of Fame, with others like Jaromir Jagr, Marleau and Jarome Iginla likely to follow once they become eligible.
Thornton, with 1,430 career points, 16th all-time, will be there too, one day.
And that’s perhaps the most important key to playing this long. Along with desire and overall health, you’ve got to be exceptional.
“Joe is still incredible with what he can do at his age,” Stevens said. “It’s a combination of things. Staying healthy, and he’s done that, and you’ve got to play sometimes injured.
“If you look at it, to have 1,000 is pretty amazing.
And here he is, putting in another 500, which is pretty remarkable.”
Thornton is not necessarily big on celebrating individual milestone achievements.
As he was on the cusp of 1,000 career assists in Feb. 2017, joining 12 other players who have accomplished that feat, including his idol, Wayne Gretzky, Thornton said, in a matterof-fact fashion, “I think when it arrives, it’ll arrive.”
Maybe it’s a milestone you appreciate more as a player when your career is over.
Those around him appreciate it right now.