February 5, 2011

Letting go of 'Jumbo Joe'

by Jesse Connolly

Joe Thornton's visit to the Garden on Saturday was his third since joining the Sharks. (Getty)

BOSTON -- Nearly six years since being traded to San Jose in the fall of 2005, Joe Thornton still must answer the same, rehashed questions every time the Bruins appear on the Sharks' daily calendar.

 For many fans, even the true diehards, the pain that the lopsided swap brought them is now gone. In fact, so are Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau and even Marco Sturm -- the last remaining part of the return the B's received for Thornton.

 While the departure of the team's captain and the cornerstone of the franchise was devastating, even the good times during Thornton's tenure are becoming more foggy as each season passes.

 And yet, even though this is visit No. 3 to Boston for the Sharks pivot, even though literally 1,839 days have passed since Thornton last sported Black and Gold, the former No. 1 overall pick is still subjected to the same slew of questions centering around what might have been.

 Oh, Boston, when will you ever just let go of 'Jumbo Joe'?

 Thornton was a good sport this afternoon when asked if he'd ever imagined how his career would have played out were he still sporting the Spoked-B, but no one can blame the 31-year-old center for admittedly not wasting a whole lot of time thinking about such a scenario.

 "You really don’t like to look back and kind of say what could have happened if I stayed here or things like that," he said. "I said out there (in the hallway) that I really enjoyed my time out here. I still have a lot of family and friends out here. I always like coming back, but I am a Shark and I like being out there (in San Jose)."

 Thornton has spent the last 434 regular season games -- slightly less than half of his NHL career -- as a member of the Sharks. He was appointed their captain this past summer. While he has fallen short of reaching his ultimate goal and bringing a Stanley Cup to San Jose, No. 19 has gone to battle in 56 playoff games over the past five postseasons.

 Add it all up, a sum of 490 games, and no wonder a win over the B's has zero sentimental value to Thornton.

 "It is just a win," said Thornton. "Maybe the first time I was here, you wanted to win the first one. But now it's just any other road game, I think."

 Thornton was a pretty special player during his time with the B's, and the face of the franchise at the time of his departure.

 Considering that, it's understandable why the trade is still heavily debated on various hockey forums. It's understandable why some still contemplate how a Thornton-led B's squad might've fared over the past few seasons.

This isn't Marty Reasoner, Andrew Alberts or any other briefly-tenured Bruin coming back to Boston. This is Joe Thornton, a player that was expected to one day lead the Black and Gold to glory from the moment he arrived with his long, blonde hair as a fresh-faced rookie in 1997.

 But, in the ever-changing landscape of professional sports, five-plus years ago is practically ancient history. Thornton has clearly moved on, and it's time we followed suit.