When Joe Thornton speaks, the San Jose Sharks listen

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton cradled the head of his captain Joe Pavelski in a towel that soaked up a disturbing amount of blood. He spoke to him, reassured him, before handing him off to a trainer who would walk Pavelski off the ice for treatment.

Thornton turned away and skated back out to where Pavelski's skull had bounced off the unforgiving ice, collecting the gear left there. He returned to the Sharks' bench and found it shaken by the horror scene. There were 10 minutes and 47 seconds left in Game 7 against the Vegas Golden Knights in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs -- potentially 10 minutes and 47 seconds left to the Sharks' season -- with the Knights holding a 3-0 lead. But losing their captain gained them an opportunity: Vegas forward Cody Eakin had been given a five-minute major penalty for the cross-check to Pavelski that led to his injury.

"When we got that power play, there was hope. There was hope for everybody," recalled forward Kevin Labanc.

Thornton sensed that hope, too. He had witnessed postseason miracles before -- alas, usually not as the beneficiary of them.

He spoke up. Emphatically. And the Sharks heard him.

"You've got to give credit to Jumbo. As soon as we got to that bench, he said, 'You guys go out and you get f---in' three goals right now,'" recalled Sharks center Logan Couture. "And I mean, when a guy that's played 20 years orders you around like that, bosses you around, you've got to go do it.

"So we did. We got four."

The four-goal rally has been colloquially labeled "The Pavelski Payback," as the Sharks would eventually eliminate the Knights with a 5-4 overtime victory to advance to the second round -- and, in some small measure, avenge their fallen captain.

"He's the heart of this team, and to see him go down like that and suffer like that, it was heartbreaking for us," Thornton said. "That power-play unit won us the game, but you know, the boys, they got together and they said, 'This is for Pav.' So we love him. It was just a matter of will, and we willed that one for him."

It instantly became a legendary playoff moment, and the 39-year-old Thornton's role in it was equally fabled. Not that he was about to accept any recognition for it, mind you.

"I'm not taking any of the credit for that. That's all the boys on that power play. It's incredible," Thornton said. "Whoever was there to witness it ... it was a special night. You get maybe one of those in a career, if you're lucky."

NHL franchises get maybe one Joe Thornton in their history, if they're lucky. Not only a star player who posts Hall of Fame-level numbers during his career, but one who remains an effective and vital part of the team over 20 years after stepping on NHL ice for the first time.

"He's the face of the franchise here for over a decade," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "Him and our leadership group really set the tempo every day with their commitment. They live it. They're the first guys at the rink and the last guys to leave the rink."

The reverence Thornton's teammates held for him before that Game 7 power play is a microcosm of his role in the organization. He can be everything from their elder statesman to their resident goofball to a father figure. In all cases, he's frequently their inspiration.

"He's Joe Thornton. Whether you're a young fan or a hockey player at the pro or junior level, when Joe Thornton speaks, you listen," said defenseman Brenden Dillon. "He's got so much leadership. There isn't a situation he hasn't been in. And he loves the game. Loves being a teammate."

Former NHL defenseman Douglas Murray was Thornton's teammate for eight seasons and remains his close friend. He has watched him grow as a leader, likening his progress to players like former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman -- teammates would listen to him at 32, but they'd really hear him at 39, Murray says.

"His voice used to matter a lot before. I imagine it matters even more now," he said. "He's played for such a long time. He's been a leader for such a long time. If people don't respect that, and put value into that, they don't deserve to play hockey."

Labanc respects it.

The 23-year-old is in his third season with the Sharks. This was his most productive campaign, with 17 goals and 39 assists. This is partially a function of skating on a line with Thornton, but mostly a result of having him as a mentor.

"It's awesome. He's been in the NHL for so many years, and he's played against so many great players. Just the experience that he shares throughout his whole career ... it's so beneficial to me. You wouldn't want to be with any other player on your line," Labanc said.

The line of Thornton, Labanc and Marcus Sorensen was put together by the Sharks right after the All-Star break. Thornton played matchmaker.

"Joe wanted Sorensen. He asked for him. He saw something in him that meshed well with how he wanted to play. Something offensively even before I did," DeBoer said. "I thought he was a fourth-line energy player and maybe didn't have the offensive instincts to get 18 to 20 goals. Joe saw that. And Labanc worked his way in there, too."

Sorensen was flattered to be picked by Thornton. "He's helped me a lot. Just being around, telling me stuff every day. Keeping me focused all the time. He's a great guy, great leader, too. Everybody wants to be like him," he said.

Thornton wanted Labanc on his line, too, but thought the young Sharks forward needed improvement. The totality of his game wasn't where it needed to be, especially in the defensive end. So Thornton and DeBoer challenged Labanc.

"Can we trust you to be on the ice in critical times? Can you help us win?" DeBoer recalled asking Labanc. "It's been a work in progress, but without Jumbo's guidance and mentorship, he wouldn't be where he's at."

And Thornton's voice.

It's one thing for a coach to make a demand of a young player. It's another to have a Hart Trophy-winning superstar make it.

"He's a Hall of Famer. Hearing his voice ... everyone stops and listens. Him telling me to be good defensively and be good in the defensive zone. That's where my game really took off," said Labanc. "It's just [to] work hard. Be the first guy on the puck. Like a dog on a bone. That's what he's taught me."

The trio ended up playing close to 400 minutes together in the regular season, posting a plus-11 goal differential, which was the best on the Sharks.

"We ... well, Jumbo," Labanc corrects himself, "likes to think of us as the difference-makers, and that's the way we want to play."

For Murray, this line, and this role, speaks volumes about Thornton.

Thornton is first among active players with 1,478 career points, which ranks him 14th in NHL history. His 1,065 assists rank him eighth all time. In both categories, he's surrounded by current Hall of Famers and is one of the most accomplished players of the past 20 years.

He was The Guy for the San Jose Sharks.

Now, he's The Old Guy. Thornton turns 40 on July 2. He's literally a graybeard. Other players with his legacy and his clout might attempt to play the same top-line role, like an aging rocker still trying to hit the high notes. Thornton decided to play rhythm guitar.

"For a guy that has been a No. 1 line guy most of the time, I think it's amazing for the team that he's embraced playing on what you'd call the third line -- on some nights, they're the best line," said Murray.

Murray played on some very talented Sharks teams with Thornton, including five that amassed over 100 points in the regular season. The farthest they advanced in the playoffs was the conference finals, and Murray believes one of the reasons is that they didn't have a line like Thornton's current group.

"That's what was missing the most when I was there," he said. "They were always great teams on the top end, but in the playoffs we'd lack that secondary scoring. Detroit had it, we didn't. Now, [Thornton's line] plays that kind of role, and they steal the show sometimes."

Murray never won a Stanley Cup. Thornton hasn't either, making his the "veteran chasing a Cup" story du jour for the 2019 postseason. There was a time during his career when Thornton used to shoulder blame for that drought. That he was too passive or soft or timid to excel in the postseason. It's a reputation he has shaken through the years, but one Murray believes wasn't warranted in the first place.

"He gets read wrong a lot of times. He's just this happy, joking person, and people think he's not that serious," he said. "But I've never played with a teammate who rehabbed harder or more often than him. If it's suggested you rehab two to three times per day, he would do 10. That's why he's still playing."

It's tales like these that landed Thornton as a finalist for the 2019 Bill Masterton Trophy, given to the player who "best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey."

It's tales like these that have earned him an exalted place in the Sharks' locker room as the voice that's not only heard but heeded, whether it's by a young player trying to find his game or a bench trying to find its composure during a chaotic Game 7, with the season on the line.

When Joe speaks, they listen. And when they listen, incredible things can happen.

"I like what someone said the other day: Joe's like the spirit animal of the team," said Murray. "It was a pretty funny way of putting it. I don't know much about spirit animals, but that just seems perfect for me. He's just some big Jumbo elephant spirit animal for the team."
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