Shawn Thornton’s legacy in Boston will always be larger than his actual contribution, and that’s just fine. Maybe it should be. He, along with a handful of other bruisers, defined the identity of a team that won the Stanley Cup in a manner that hadn’t been accomplished since the days of the Broad Street Bullies. They lived on The Punk Test, and if you couldn’t stand up to them (and no one could), you got treated like a punk.
Even as they expire, it’s easy to love the Shawn Thornton years, particularly if you’re a Bruins fan. He carries himself on the ice how so many people would like to live in life, if only it were possible. If he didn’t like a guy, he’d tell him to eff off. If that guy came back at him, he'd punch them in the face. If he liked you, he treated you like a saint.
I do believe his value extended beyond his physical performance on the ice. Few teams in recent history have seemed so united in their “go after one of our guys, and the rest of us are coming” stance. You may not need that on all teams, but that’s who the Bruins were, and that’s what he helped provide.
As it should be clear by now, I think he’s been a great Bruin. I mean, not actually A Great Bruin - my heavens, settle down here, putting him in a class with Orr, Neely and Bourque is utterly asinine - but he played his role and served a purpose in the limited minutes he was allotted.
Now, the important message: a lot of hockey players can play, and are willing to play, the same role Shawn Thornton did for Boston. They probably could’ve done it as well, he just checked each and every “little things” box to earn the nod over the next near-identical AHL player. He worked in the community, he said the right things, he got the puck deep, and he would fight anybody whenever he was asked - without getting his ass handed to him.
What I’m saying here, though, is that if the actual hockey playing requirements of a role are so low, and you have to max out your skill-set to fill that job, you’re in trouble when you lose a step. Or a half-step. Or a quarter-step. Or a tenth of a…
Shawn Thornton never had a step to give, but age - he’s 37 next month - has taken one anyway. It probably did awhile ago.
Now he’s in a situation where a team is going to look at his career, and sign him to be a mascot.
It’s easy to see how a team could look at Thornton and go “This is what we need - a winner with heart and character.” He first showed up in the league some 12 years ago, and now has a unique hockey resume. He’s amassed 660 NHL games (559 regular season, 101 playoffs - how many people have a ratio like that?). He’s won two Stanley Cups. He’s fought like, 150 times. And for all that, he’s earned a (comparatively) meager $5.375 million. (His ex-teammate Blake Wheeler made more than that this past season. Hell, that’s less than half the value of 20-year-old Nail Yakupov’s entry level deal.)
This guy is a grinder who refuses to quit, and we need that, a savvy executive will say.
And so, some team will have a mascot, a name on the bench who can no longer play at a high enough level for all his “intangibles” to matter. If he can’t operate within an NHL game, the things that Bruins fans and media laud about him simply cease to matter. If you can’t play, you can’t play.
If you want to bring in a guy who provides some of the things Thornton does aside from hockey, bring him in as a coach. Hire him to operate within a player development role. I have no doubt that players can be coerced into playing tougher, that they’ll play harder for men they respect, and that they can buy into a culture of toughness.
But I also have no doubt that players like Thornton can be easily dismissed in the room if they can’t do the whole “hockeying” part of the job, and that can take away from those overrated intangibles. If I’m in the dressing room with him, I’m not taking crap for not being tough enough from a guy who can’t handle passes, or can’t keep up with the play. I wouldn’t feel the need to emulate the guy who sits in the pressbox for three game, gets five minutes, gets in a fight, then says rah-rah on the bench. Would you?
Shawn Thornton had a career to be proud of, truly. He fought (often literally) for every game, every win, and every dollar he earned. I don’t blame him for trying to stretch his career into another paycheck, more starts, and more wins. Play til they say you can’t.
But if you’re a team looking to bring in what Thornton brought the Bruins, look elsewhere. Everything he brings to the table is voided by his inability to be a contributing NHLer these days. You’d be bringing in a mascot.