For years, NHL team workout facilities have resembled Tour de France training camps, with players flocking to stationary bikes for a cardiovascular workout that does wonders for a skater’s legs.
“It’s obvious,” Kings’ winger Scott Thornton, an avid cyclist said, “that in both skating and cycling, you use a lot of leg muscles. Cycling is not the best upper body workout, but it is great for conditioning your aerobic capacity, and that’s why it translates so well to hockey.”
For the first 10 years of his NHL career, Thornton was among the legion of players content to hop on a lifecycle and roll up the miles on the odometer while sitting still.
Eventually, Thornton came to the realization that in addition to providing a great physical workout, a bike could also offer the ultimate psychological challenge. It could also take Thornton to places much more scenic than the inside of a training facility.
So Thornton got a Trek, the same bike Lance Armstrong rides, and gave up virtual reality for real roads.
“Any chance I have to get outside and just ride,” Thornton said, “is something I really look forward to.”
If Armstrong taught us one thing, it’s that cycling is not about the bike. The cancer survivor’s incredible run of seven consecutive Tour de France victories was about mind over matter almost as much as it was about athleticism.
That’s one of the reasons Thornton devotes part of his off-season to competing in events such as the Tour of the California Alps, a Lake Tahoe event that encompasses 129 miles. Thornton figures if he can finish an event known as “The Death Ride,” he can overcome the onset of a little fatigue during an overtime game, or the listlessness that threatens players during those seven-games-in-nine-nights stretches that crop up during the hockey season.
“I think that’s the biggest part of cycling for me,” Thornton said. “It’s all a mental game and you have to convince yourself that you are going to get through it. Your body is screaming out to quit, but you somehow find a way to keep pumping and get to the top of the mountain.” Thornton has completed the Lake Tahoe ride each the past two Julys.
“It’s 129 miles and it’s 16,000 feet of climbing,” Thornton said. “There are five mountain passes that you have to go over to complete it. I’ve done it the last two summers and it’s very difficult. It’s about 10 hours of riding.”
Thornton established a personal best in 2005, completing the course in nine hours. Like most kids, Thornton rode a bike while growing up in London, Ontario, but he said that he didn’t really get inspired to test his limits through cycling until he joined the Sharks in 2000.
“It’s a sport that I have taken interest in since I’ve been out in California,” Thornton said. “With the weather and the quality of the roads out here, it’s an exciting way to train for the season.”
Although the weather and natural beauty of California are what drew Thornton to the sport, the inspiration of Lake Tahoe’s scenic vistas can only take a rider so far. They can provide an initial jolt of energy at the start of the ride, but finishing the challenging course is something that must come from within.
“Early in the morning,” Thornton said, “the first three mountains, you look around and enjoy it. You look at some of the snowcaps and the peaks. But the last two climbs, you are feeling a lot of pain and you are basically staring at the road in front of your tire. You’re trying to find anything you have left to get done.” Thornton said finishing a bike ride of that magnitude is overwhelmingly gratifying.
“You almost get a little emotional,” he said. “To know that you have pushed yourself beyond anything that you’ve done before is a great feeling. You’ve found it in yourself to finish the day. To think that you could actually do that on a bicycle is a great satisfaction and you kind of look forward to the next one. Before that intense pleasure, however, a rider inevitably experiences immeasurable pain.
“It’s a lot of it is absolute suffering,” Thornton said bluntly. His own experiences as a rider have given him a greater appreciation for the exploits of professional cyclists.
“Those guys ride an hour and 15 minutes in some of longer time trials, and their heart rates are almost at their heart rate max the whole time,” he marveled. “That’s incredible. Most people don’t get their heart rate up that high once in their life, let alone holding it there for an hour.
“It’s definitely a tough sport.”
No tougher than the one Thornton makes his living at. At 6-3, 225 pounds, Thornton is durable enough that he can continue playing his trademark physical style as he enters his 17th NHL season at the age of 36.
Thornton broke into the NHL with Toronto in 1990-91, and made stops in Edmonton, Montreal and Dallas before his career cycled it’s way to California. After five productive seasons with the Sharks, in which he averaged 15 goals a year, Thornton signed with the Kings as a free agent last summer. With the Sharks in 2001-02, he had a career year with 26 goals and 42 points with a plus-11 rating.
“I think maybe a change was due for me,” Thornton said. “I think maybe my last couple of years in San Jose didn’t go as well as I wanted them to personally. At this stage of my life, Los Angeles is a great city to raise my kids, and it’s been great for them.”
Signing Thornton was one of the first moves made by Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi, who knew the rugged winger from his time as the Sharks’ G.M.
“This is a good young team that I knew was going to be a threat to go to the playoffs,” Thornton said, “so the decision to come here was pretty easy to make.”
Thornton says he feels a particular loyalty to Lombardi.
“You feel obligated to play well for him and perform,” he said. “When Dean is going to stick his neck out and sign me to a deal and bring me in, I feel obligated to do my best and perform well for him. That’s the kind of relationship we have and I like that.”
Written by Doug Ward for Royal Reign