It wasn't all that long ago that it seemed like the San Jose Sharks couldn't wait to part ways with veteran center Joe Thornton. Actually, it seems like a million years ago. Since then, the Sharks have advanced to their first ever Stanley Cup finals, and Thornton, now 37, has added to what is a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Fame career by becoming just the 13th player in history to record 1,000 assists. And the best thing? Thornton is still, well, Joe Thornton, a perpetually happy guy who gets the joke long before anyone else in the room does. ESPN.com recently caught up with him.
ESPN.com: We have spent a lot of time this season talking about theChicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild in the Central Division and the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific. And then, all of a sudden, there are the Sharks quietly sitting just a few points out of the top spot in the Western Conference. How did that happen?
Thornton:We're sneaky out here. We go quietly about our business. And I think that's what we've done for the last couple of years, just put good games and good streaks together, and eventually we look up and we're first in the division. There's still a race to be won for the conference and for our division, so we realize we've still got to play some hockey.
ESPN.com: You recently hit the 1,000-assist mark. The puck didn't get shot up into the crowd, did it?
Thornton: The guys grabbed the puck for me. And I think I'll also keep the stick that I used, but other than that, that's all you keep.
ESPN.com:Guys like Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby seem to have a photographic memory of the goals they scored. Do you remember assists the same way?
Thornton: Yeah, I do. I remember plays. I'm a passer, so I probably remember them just as goal scorers do goals.
ESPN.com: So do you remember your first NHL assist?
Thornton: I don't. But I do know I waited a long, long time. I remember 10 years ago. But I don't remember 20 years ago, no.
ESPN.com: I thought you said you remembered them all. So if I ask you about an assist from 10 years ago, you'll remember it?
Thornton: I could probably do that, but 20 years is stretching my mind too long.
ESPN.com: Are there things you have done or can do to work on being a better passer, to hone your skills in that part of the game?
Thornton:My first year in Boston, I was sitting on the bench a lot. I remember watching my teammateJason Allison. He was in his prime, and he was so good. I would watch him day in and day out. I'd pick up little traits from him -- how he'd control his body, how he'd protect the puck. I'd also watch players that I played against. The first couple of years were actually beneficial to me even though I didn't play too much. I was just taking in information and then implementing it into my game later on.
ESPN.com:Speaking of Jason Allison, I once visitrf him at his cottage north of Toronto to talk about him not making the Canadian Olympic team.
Thornton: He was incredible. People don't realize that. He had a short span in Boston. He was in the top 10 in scoring every year. People thought he was slow, but he actually won every loose puck battle. He was so strong. He was very, very underrated, I think.
ESPN.com: There have been times when people have said, "Joe's too slow" or "He doesn't score enough" or "He can't win." Do you pay attention when people are mean to you?
Thornton: I don't. I try to live without stress, to be honest with you. And it's so easy for me. I love going to the rink, but when I leave it I go back to my family and I'm chasing around a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old. So that's the only stress I have in my life -- are these kids healthy? That's the only time, when the kids are sick, that I really feel any anxiety. But as far as critics and that? No, I pay no attention. I don't have Twitter. So I really don't know what's going on in the outside world, and that's a beautiful thing.
ESPN.com: You do have electricity though, right?
Thornton: Yes, I do. Running water, too.
ESPN.com: Did you have to evolve into finding such a calm personal space or have you always been like that?
Thornton: I think I've always kind of been like that. I've always had the attitude, "Just go out and play and see what happens." I've never been a guy who is really wound up and out to prove people wrong. I just really enjoy playing the game. That's all I can really say. Sometimes it goes good, sometimes it doesn't.
ESPN.com: Kind of like life.
ESPN.com: Do you still enjoy the game?
Thornton: I love it. I'm obsessed with the game. I just love everything that it brings to the table. I love the competition. I love the workouts. I just love everything that it brings out of every guy.
ESPN.com: Does that surprise you that you still feel that way at this stage of your career?
Thornton: I'm going to be 38 in July. No. I've been obsessed with hockey ever since I can remember. In the summer, I would play street hockey every day with my cousins and my brothers. And in the winter we'd play on the backyard rink. I've been obsessed with this sport for 35 years, and so it doesn't surprise me that I still love it. It's what I do, and it's what makes me happy. There's nothing better for me than playing hockey and going in and having the fellowship with the guys and competing with them every day. There's nothing better for me.
ESPN.com: At one point it seemed the thinking was for you to leave the NHL and play in Switzerland, where your wife is from. I'm not trying to rush you, but do you have an exit strategy?
Thornton: I don't. I've taken it day by day for years, and I think that's the best way to do it. I know it's not going to last forever, so I just enjoy every day. I remember all the older guys, when I started playing, telling me how fast it all goes by. I remember being an 18-year-old and going, "Whoa, this is the NHL. And it just flies right by, so just enjoy every day."
ESPN.com: Do you think about having gotten so close to winning the Stanley Cup for the first time and what it might be like to take that final step?
Thornton: Oh yeah, absolutely. That's the reason you play. And that's the reason I'm so hungry still. We haven't done it yet. We got close last year, and when you realize how close you came, that's the driving force behind the whole thing. Just wanting to hold [the Stanley Cup] and raise it.
ESPN.com: We're near the end now, so I can ask this in case you get mad. But it must have been horrible to lose Game 6 of the finals in your building and know that Pittsburgh was celebrating with the Cup. Was it as bad as I think?
Thornton: Yeah. It stung. You work so hard, and you feel like, "OK, if we win this one and go back to Pittsburgh, we can celebrate there." You never really get yourself into that mindset of, "Oh, the Stanley Cup is in the building, and they have it in their hands." I never really thought about that, so yeah, it stung. They're out there having the best time in their life, and you're in the locker room thinking, "We just came so close. It's a horrible, horrible feeling."
ESPN.com:Did you get dressed and leave right away?
Thornton: I don't recall how long I stayed or anything like that. It was just a bad feeling. I don't want to go through that again.