SUNRISE, Fla. -- As Shawn Thornton talks, the play goes on far below him, the Florida Panthers taking on the San Jose Sharks in a game that he will not impact, at least not in any conventional way. He is sitting in the press box, leaning back in a version of a uniform, though not the one he has worn for the 656 NHL games he has played over the 14 seasons of his career.
He is wearing a suit, his skates left behind in the locker room. He talks, the Sharks score, and a new in-between life unfolds before him.
Thornton actually thought he would spend this season in a suit. But he thought his life would be different, that he would leave behind his playing days to join the Panthers' business-side operation, as someone learning to move on with his life and embracing his post-career aspirations in the front office.
So what the heck is he doing here?
The idea was for him to move into the front office, to learn from and work with Matt Caldwell, who was named the president and CEO of the Panthers in April, to transition out of the life of a player and into the life of an executive. He was going to learn everything. As he said, "Kind of like Cam [Neely] did when he first started with [the] Boston [Bruins], same type of thing. Only I'm not in the Hall of Fame."
He would "dip my toes into the water with everything, try and learn the business side of it, shadow him and see where that goes. That was the plan."
He had turned down an offer to return to Boston to work in media with NESN, the job he always expected to hold after his playing days ended. He had worked toward that for most of his career, in fact, and turning it down was not easy.
But he had a chance to move into the front office in Florida. And that was too enticing to give up.
And then came a text from Panthers vice chairman, partner and alternate governor Doug Cifu in March. He wanted Thornton to get on a conference call at 5 p.m. Thornton panicked. He didn't know what was coming, what they were going to ask him to do, or not do, or how the plan might change. He never expected what was coming.
"When they offered another year [as a player], I definitely said, 'Send It over ASAP before you change your mind, please,'" Thornton said with a smile.
The plan was on hold.
Few teams have the roster space and the salary-cap space to do what the Panthers are doing with Thornton this season, to have a player who has played a single game this season and might not play again. It's a luxury the Panthers have, but one they believe is important to an organization that, like Thornton himself, is in a transition.
"He's so valuable," president of hockey operations Dale Tallon said. "Because we're very young, we need to surround those guys with quality people. And that's why he's still here. He understands his role perfectly. He's there to help and mentor, and he's a winner."
And he's well aware of the situation. The Panthers were up front with him on that conference call, saying that it was unknown how many games he would play. They wanted to make sure that was understood. It was.
"It's important to have people around in an organization [for] the culture we're trying to develop here," said Tallon, who has known Thornton since the early 2000s in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. "He's been very helpful. If we've got an issue, go talk to this kid. Or, why don't you pull this kid aside? I see something, I'll go [to him]. I think coming from a player, it's easier for them to understand than coming from me. If it gets to be an issue, then I'll confront it, but he's kind of like a middleman."
For the Panthers to reach the next step in their development, in the individual players' development, work needs to be done. They reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years last season, losing in the first round to the New York Islanders. It was the second time Florida made the postseason since 2000.
To get back there, and to go further, the Panthers want to make sure their culture is in the right place, to surround their young, maturing core -- players like Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Aleksander Barkov -- with veterans who will show them the right way, with goaltender Roberto Luongo and captain Derek MacKenzie, in addition to Thornton. They want those players to be held accountable, to learn the right work ethic, and they believe Thornton is helping with that.
"It's a lot different here than most organizations," said Thornton, who has played for the Blackhawks, Anaheim Ducks and Bruins, winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim and Boston. "It's very open. There's what I'm told is a very Wall Street feel, that everyone's on the same level. There's a lot of sharing and a lot of flow of information. There's not a lot of hierarchy. Everyone's here for the same goal, and whatever it takes to make that goal achievable."
Though he has maintained his fitness level, including losing 10 pounds in the offseason, the 39-year-old Thornton has no illusions about his role on the Panthers. Sure, he'd be more than happy to see his name in the lineup, and wants to be ready in case it is, but he's aware that most nights it will not be there. He's aware that he might have played his final NHL game already, on Oct. 29, with his parents coming to Buffalo to watch.
"I've always said that I'd play as long as I could and whether I'm playing or just around the guys, I'm happy to do it," Thornton said. "I'm 39, the worst hockey player on every team I've ever played on for 20 years pro, and I'm still here. I think I'm very, very fortunate. Play one game, play 100 games this year, doesn't matter. I'm just happy to be here."