It was the summer of 2007. Shawn Thornton had just taken a big leap toward establishing himself as an NHL regular with the Stanley Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks but was now an unrestricted free agent. The gritty winger from the Oshawa, Ontario, area was in the midst of a fishing tournament, something he admitted wasn’t his forte, when he missed a call from Cam Neely.
When he called back, the Bruins’ then-vice president offered Thornton the chance to come do something that was more up his alley, and in a place that boasted a culture that seemed perfectly suited for him.
“Cam called me and it was more about how much the city would fit a person like myself, based on what he knew about me, playing-wise,” Thornton recalled. “He made the pitch that this town would work out better than a lot of others.”
Boy was he right. Since signing a three-year deal with the Bruins that offseason, Thornton has carved out a role with the team and within the community that perhaps no other hockey town truly could’ve provided.
The reason, of course, is that the pugilistic forward possesses the attributes both on and off the ice that the Hub of Hockey holds in high regard. Through and through, Thornton is a true Bruin.
“When you think of Bruins hockey, you think of old-time hockey,” said Bobby Carpenter (Beverly, Mass.), who played for the Bruins from 1989 to 1992. “They’re tough, work-ethic type players that are loyal and dedicated. That’s what hockey in Boston is all about.”
During his time in Boston, Carpenter played with a few of the players that truly exemplified what it means to play Bruins hockey, including Neely.
“You can name so many different people,” said Carpenter, who believes Thornton certainly fits the bill. “If you had to think of people who jump out, you have the Terry O’Reillys and Stan Jonathans. But on the other side, you have players like Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Wayne Cashman, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson that were different types of players, but they certainly have the characteristics of Bruins hockey.”
Thornton arrived in Boston at the perfect time, as Neely — now the club’s president — and general manager Peter Chiarelli were just beginning their effort to return the team to its roots after the Bruins fell on hard times. Acquiring toughness was among their top priorities.
“I think we’re built with a lot of tough guys, but I don’t think there’s anyone that can’t play,” said Thornton, who played a big role in the Bruins turning things around against the Vancouver Canucks and winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. “We’re a tough team. We’re hockey players first and foremost, but we have a bunch of guys that can defend themselves if need be. I think I’d put myself at the bottom of the list as far as playing-wise, as my role is more taking care of those things, but I’m blessed that I have a coaching staff and management that have enough confidence in me to get me out there 10 minutes a night.”
Shy of the presumably departed Tim Thomas, no Bruin worked harder to get to where he is today than Thornton, as he went toe-to-toe with his fellow fighters for parts of 10 seasons in the American Hockey League, racking up a hard-earned 2,468 penalty minutes in 605 games. Everything he’s gotten, he’s earned, and that’s something blue-collar Boston fans can identify with and appreciate.
Throughout his tenure in Boston, Thornton has been a staple on the fourth line, which he aptly dubbed the “Merlot Line” a few years back, based on the color of their practice sweaters. He has provided coach Claude Julien’s squad with an abundance of energy and snarl and always is willing to drop the mitts when necessary. But the veteran winger also takes great pride in the effort he has and continues to put into being a better all-around player, which is what’s truly made him a difference-maker for the Black and Gold.
“I probably couldn’t do much more than fight in the first few years,” Thornton said. “I worked harder than a lot of people I know so I could get a regular shift and contribute in more ways. The fighting’s always been there and just come naturally to me. The other stuff is what I really had to work on.”
However, Thornton’s eagerness to stand up for his teammates and trade bone-crushing blows with some of the biggest heavyweights in the National Hockey League makes him that much more beloved by the fan base.
“Boston fans like guys who will always play hard and have that balance of skill and toughness,” said Bruins fan Dan Henry (Peabody, Mass.), who has had season tickets for nearly 30 years and began going to Bruins games just before the Bobby Orr era began. “I’m a huge Thornton fan.”
Thornton’s certainly happy that all the black eyes and bruises have earned him gratitude from the locals.
“Along the way, the fans had been pretty good to me, but being in Boston now for going on six years, it’s a town that, if you give an effort, they appreciate that,” he said. “They notice effort more than anything. We’re a hard-working bunch of guys and I think for the most part, that’s why people embrace Bruins’ style of hockey these days.”
As one of the NHL’s Original Six, the Bruins are one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, but that reputation stems from more than just their longevity or their six Stanley Cups. Throughout their nearly nine-decade history, guys such as Eddie Shore, O’Reilly, Neely and countless others have become legends in this town, not only because of their skills but also because of their bruising, workmanlike style of play. They’ve made the Bruins a team synonymous with toughness for almost a century. It’s a tradition that Thornton is proud to carry on.
“I’d like to say you should take pride in putting the Spoked-B on your chest,” Thornton said. “You don’t take that for granted. There’s a ton of history that goes along with that. It’s kind of been ingrained into everyone in this organization. You’re supposed to show up, prepare, act and play a certain way. Everyone in that locker room takes pride in that.”
The community has embraced Thornton, and not just within the confines of TD Garden. The 35-year-old forward is now a year-round resident in Charlestown, Mass., where he feels right at home.
“What I love about the neighborhood is it’s right downtown, but it’s a neighborhood unto itself,” said Thornton, who was zipping home to grab some coffee before embarking on an evening that included some boxing training and a visit to a friend’s barbecue nearby.
“Everyone there takes care of each other and looks out for each other. They’ve really gone out of their way to take me into the town, and I feel like I’ve been there my whole life. I feel like a local.
“When you go to my golf tournament (Putts and Punches for Parkinson’s) and there’s like 120 people there, 80 percent of them are just local Charlestown guys that want to support my charity because they love supporting the community. It’s pretty amazing when you look back. I didn’t know where I was going to live when I got here, but it definitely worked out. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”
Henry can’t think of anyone who oozes the traits of a Bostonian more than Thornton.
“We always park in Charlestown for the games, and we all played in Charlestown. I went to school with all those kids from Southie,” Henry said. “Shawn Thornton just reminds me of those kids. … He looks like he’s from Southie or Charlestown, just a tough neighborhood kid, but those guys always had hearts of gold. I think it’s great. People love Shawn Thornton.”
Perhaps New England Hockey Journal contributing writer Andrew Merritt sums it up best, echoing Henry’s sentiments.
“There are guys from Southie named ‘Sully’ who are less Boston than Shawn Thornton,” Merritt said. “What an absolute perfect fit he is here.”
And here is where Thornton always wants to be.
“I’ve had thoughts. I’m not exactly sure,” said Thornton, who’s signed through the 2013-14 season, when asked what’s in store for his post-playing days. “Obviously, I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Comcast, and I think if I can continue doing that over the next couple seasons while I’m here, maybe I can get into TV and media. I don’t know where I’m going to be in two or three years. I have nothing against the steel factory, my old man still works there, but I do not want to go back to having to do that.
“This is home now. Like I said, I can’t control trades or how long I can play or whether the Bruins keep bringing me back. I would love to retire here, and I’d love to be a Bostonian for life. If everything works out the way it should in my head, yes, this is home now and we plan on staying.”
Given that he seemingly was born to be a Bruin, Boston fans undoubtedly would be delighted if Thornton ends up sticking around, both on the ice at the Garden and in the neighborhood where he so perfectly belongs.
For more on Thornton's commitment to local charities, click here.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com.