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'Next year' is now for Thornton, Sharks

36-year-old forward never lost faith in team on way to Final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- Joe Thornton has seen the Stanley Cup awarded in person once in his life.

It was 1997, and he was 17, a top NHL prospect. Agents Mike Barnett and Eddie Mio had an office in Detroit and season tickets in the lower bowl behind the net at Joe Louis Arena. Mio said he thought it would be a good experience for him to see the Red Wings face the Philadelphia Flyers in the Final.

He went to Game 4 with his brother John, a huge Steve Yzerman fan and the reason he started wearing No. 19. They witnessed the Red Wings end their 42-year championship drought, arena rocking, confetti falling. They saw Yzerman -- the guy critics had said couldn't win, the guy the team had almost traded -- lift the Cup for the first time at age 32.

John said they were "bawling" at the sight of it.

Video: Thornton on long journey to Stanley Cup Final

"I didn't know his struggles or anything like that at the time," Joe said. "I just thought, 'This guy's the man, and he won it.' That's all I thought, 'Wow, that's Stevie Yzerman, and he's hoisting the Cup. What a special moment.' "

Two weeks later, Joe was selected by the Boston Bruins as the No. 1 pick in the NHL Draft at Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.

Nineteen years later, his San Jose Sharks are trying to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 25-year history, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Final. Game 1 is at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports), across the street from where old Civic Arena used to be.

The Bruins traded Joe to the Sharks in 2005-06, the season he won the Hart Trophy. The Sharks stripped him of the captaincy two years ago after they blew a 3-0 series lead and lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the first round. He might have been traded if not for a no-move clause in his contract, and here he is four wins from winning the Cup for the first time at age 36.

"I can't imagine the feeling if Joe gets that chance," John said.

Video: Sharks forward Joe Thornton on first Cup appearence

Joe's primary motivation isn't to prove people wrong. He has enough confidence to know how good he is. He has enough perspective to know winning isn't everything and one player can't do it all in such a team sport.

Asked at Media Day on Sunday about being a scapegoat in Boston and San Jose, he said: "Really, if you know me, it doesn't affect me. I know I'm a great player. I know we've had some great teams. It just hasn't mixed. It does take 20 guys, and that's just the reality of it." Asked about losing the captaincy, he said: "If you know me, it really wasn't a big deal."

If you know Joe, you know he's his own man. He's going to be himself. He's going to have fun. He loves the game, loves his teammates, loves all of it. That's his primary motivation.

"Joe is Joe," Mio said. "He tries not to let too much bother him. He's got that great attitude. He just keeps moving forward. He approaches every day with a smile on his face. I don't think I've ever seen Joe not smile, even after a game, even after a loss."

Joe grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, just south of London. His father Wayne, a purchaser for a company that manufactured steel truck rims, made their home the place to play for his sons and all the kids in the neighborhood. He paved the driveway and put sticks in the window well so they could play street hockey in the summer. He flooded the backyard so they could play ice hockey in the winter.

Video: Pavelski discusses Thornton's leadership

Though Joe played other sports -- baseball, basketball, soccer -- he was all about hockey. John said he wouldn't ask for Christmas presents; he was happy with hockey gear.

"I'd be inside playing Nintendo for three hours," John said. "He'd be outside on the driveway taking slap shots at a piece of Plexiglas that my dad cut out and put on the driveway so he could shoot better."

Joe looked up to his brothers: John, three years older, and Alex, eight years older. But he would go after them and try to beat them by any means necessary. He once ran John from behind and flipped him over the neighbor's fence.

"He'd get dirty with you, definitely get dirty, because he wanted to win," John said. "But he won all the time."

In many ways, Joe is still a big kid enjoying an extended childhood. When we say he loves the game, he loves the actual physical task of playing hockey, from training in the gym to skating and handling the puck on the ice. He loves his teammates like brothers.

That's how he defines himself as a player.

"I just love putting in the work," Joe said. "I enjoy the burn. I enjoy working hard every day, working hard throughout the summer. That's my high, the hard work that it takes to be a good player in this league. It's an addiction that I have and I think probably most good players have, the work that you've got to put in to be good. …

"I enjoy coming to the rink every day. I don't know what it is. I'm just really passionate about the game of hockey. It's the only thing I know, and I love it."

Joe never gave up on the Sharks. After the loss to the Kings and the captaincy controversy two years ago, general manager Doug Wilson said the Sharks were rebuilding and questioned whether some veterans would want to be a part of it. Joe stayed. When they missed the playoffs last season, they hit rock bottom. But Wilson brought in coach Peter DeBoer and bolstered the roster.

"I always believed that next year was going to be the year," Joe said. "I really did. I always thought we were a couple of pieces away. Even last year not making the playoffs, I honestly thought we were a couple of pieces away, and here we are. You've got to put in the hard work in the summertime. You've just got to believe, and this can happen."

Joe's still a fan. When the Sharks have visited Toronto over the years, players have tended to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Joe has joined them. He has studied the Stanley Cup, calling it "beautiful" and the "nicest" trophy in sports.

One of his favorite players, Wayne Gretzky, won it four times. Another of his favorite players, Pat LaFontaine, never won it. But LaFontaine is still a Hall of Fame member, isn't he? Whether the Sharks win or lose this series, Joe will be a Hall of Fame member someday too. That doesn't mean he doesn't want to win badly.

He wants to win because he's a hockey player and a competitor who has invested so much into this for so long. He wants to win for himself but also for his teammates, his organization and his city, so others can feel what he did that night in Detroit years ago.

"He doesn't take lightly how much it means to everybody," John said. "He knows what it is to be a diehard hockey fan. That's how we all started. He loved seeing the crowd in San Jose after the Game 6 win [against the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final], and he knows they had to win them back. He would love to give that to another fan in the stands."

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