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Thornton helping Sharks in playoff run as 'player-coach'

Using hard work, character to set example for younger teammates heading into Game 3 against Golden Knights

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- It's a Saturday morning. The San Jose Sharks are holding an optional practice during the Western Conference First Round against the Vegas Golden Knights before heading to the airport.

The best-of-7 series is tied 1-1 entering Game 3 at T-Mobile Arena on Sunday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBCSCA, SN, SN360, TVAS, ATTSN-RM).

And onto the ice comes center Joe Thornton with forward Kevin Labanc, as usual. Thornton goes behind the net and works on down-low moves as Labanc rims pucks around the boards. Thornton gives instructions; Labanc obeys.

"He says, 'You can have a day off when you're 30,' " Labanc says with a laugh. " 'Every day, just come in, do something. It'll better you for the future.' "

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Golden Knights series coverage]

 

Thornton is well past 30. He's 39 and headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame. With 1,478 points, he's the leading active scorer in the NHL and ranks 14th in history. With 1,065 assists, he's the leading active playmaker in the League and ranks eighth in history.

But he still doesn't take days off, even if he's on the ice for a few minutes. It's like he's a real shark, like he has to keep moving to live.

At the same time, he's mentoring players like Labanc, a 23-year-old in his third NHL season. Thanks in part to being on Thornton's wing and under it, Labanc set NHL career highs for goals (17), assists (39) and points (56) this season and earned enough trust from the coaches to play in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Big credit goes to his player-coach, Joe Thornton, who plays with him," coach Peter DeBoer says. "He's talking to him all the time. [Labanc is] a really fortunate young player to have a guy like that that's showing him the way. Obviously, probably five, six months ago, I would have had questions whether he could help you at this time of year, and I think he's answered those with some help from [Thornton]."

Player-coach?

"Like Reg Dunlop!" Thornton says with a grin.

Well, Thornton isn't quite the character from the movie "Slap Shot." But he is a character with character.

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm2: Thornton redirects puck past Fluery

* * * * *

It's well-documented how much fun Thornton has in the NHL. He loves the actual physical tasks of hockey. He loves being with the guys.

A recent example: Goalie Aaron Dell's nickname morphed from "Deller" to "Ler" to "La" to "Lou." Eventually, Thornton started calling him "Bubba Lou" and then "Louis."

When the Sharks were in Las Vegas to play the Golden Knights in the second round last year, Thornton showed Dell two pairs of slippers in a Louis Vuitton store.

"What do you think?" Thornton asked him. "These or these?"

Thornton made Dell try them on.

"I don't know," Dell told him. "I like these better."

When the Sharks returned to San Jose, the slippers were in Dell's locker as a joke.

"I didn't really, like, think he was going to get them for me," Dell says, smiling. "He's just the biggest character all the time."

Another recent example: Thornton started bringing a portable speaker onto the team bus and blasting music after road wins, even with general manager Doug Wilson sitting up front. He'd dedicate songs to teammates, often teasing one in particular.

"This one goes out to my good buddy Evander Kane," Thornton might say, turning on a love song. "Yeah, he's a lover."

Video: VGK@SJS, Gm1: Vlasic finishes feed from Thornton

But to have fun in the NHL, you have to be in the NHL. To stay in the NHL, you have to succeed in the NHL. To succeed in the NHL, you have to make the most of your talent.

"I just try to help guys out," Thornton says. "I want these guys to have 15-, 20-year careers, because it's worth it. It's worth putting in the time, because the amount of fun you have in this game, there's nothing like this game. I think for me, just try to nudge these guys along to have long and successful careers.

"You've got to encourage, but then I think sometimes you need a kick in the butt as well. I love playing and being around these young guys because they allow me to be … you know, young and have a lot of fun. But you know, sometimes, you need to say, 'OK, time to put the work in. Stop fooling around.' "

When someone like Thornton tells you to stop fooling around, you listen.

"He's been around; he knows what it takes," Dell says. "If you do good stuff, he's going to tell you, and if you do bad stuff, he's going to tell you, so if he's getting on you, you can't take it personally, and you've got to realize that he means well by it. Sometimes he can be a little abrasive with it. In the end, he just wants the best out of you, so he's trying to get that from you."

Even from goalies?

"Yeah," Dell says with a laugh. "He's on me all the time."

DeBoer says it's natural leadership.

"It just comes out of him," DeBoer says. "He's a veteran guy. I think he cares about his teammates. He wants to make people better, and I think if he recognizes in a guy potential, he's one of the first guys to try and help bring that out. And I think if you ask guys around the room, I think he's done that with a lot of guys -- Brent Burns to Kevin Labanc to … The list is long."

Burns came to the Sharks from the Minnesota Wild in a trade June 24, 2011. Thornton helped the free spirit feel free to show his spirit, and Burns blossomed into one of the best defensemen in the League, winning the Norris Trophy in 2017.

"I mean, [Thornton is] definitely one of the best to ever play hockey, and anybody that's ever had the chance to be around him, you can just feel his energy, his passion, just his general joy of being around the rink," Burns says. "So that goes a long way in allowing everybody else to be themselves and be different."

In Labanc, Thornton sees a player with vision, patience and a good shot who is scratching the surface. Labanc says he has had to work on being more reliable -- winning battles, avoiding turnovers -- and Thornton specifically has taught him to work hard to get open and get the puck back.

"I think as time goes on he's only going to get more confident and stronger," Thornton says. "It just takes time. But he's come a long way this year, and super proud of him. Especially at that age, you're developing your body, your skill set, your mind. And I give him full credit. He comes in and works every day. He's putting the work in, and it's paying off for him."

It should for a long time.

"From a Hall of Famer, yeah, you take that advice," Labanc says, "and you literally do it for the rest of your career."

Video: Notable veteran players who have yet to win the Cup

* * * * *

Before Games 1 and 2 at SAP Center, the Sharks declared in the pregame show they were all in for "you," meaning the fans, for "us," meaning the team, and for "him," meaning Thornton. At that moment, they showed a picture of him in full-bearded celebration, and the crowd roared.

Thornton has not declared this is it. He has been taking it a season at a time for a while now. But he is on a one-year contract and has been bothered by injuries, and who knows if he will chase the elusive Stanley Cup again?

"I think if he had it his way he'd go until his body wouldn't let him anymore," Dell says. "But it could be possibly the last chance for him, and I think everyone here realizes that. … In the back of your mind it's kind of all to get that for him for his last chance, possibly."

Thornton has no interest in being a coach someday.

"No," he says.

He's a player, a player-coach, going for it at least one more time and handing down his knowledge. He can take a day off when he's done.

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