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Thornton to learn family history in visit to Belfast

by Shawn P. Roarke
BELFAST -- Hockey has given Shawn Thornton many things in life, but he never imagined it would bring him back to his roots.

Yet, there Thornton sat Thursday afternoon -- after an overnight flight from Boston -- in the city of his mother's birth, peeling off a sweaty Boston Bruins jersey and ruminating exactly on what the game has given him.

Just since signing with Boston in 2007, Thornton has found a hockey home and been exposed to experiences he never believed to be possible.

"I'm pretty fortunate, my first exhibition game with Boston after I signed was in Newfoundland and I hadn't been back there in five or six years and now this," Thornton told Thursday. "The timing has been pretty good for myself."

Thornton played his first four pro seasons in the American Hockey League with the St. John's Maple Leafs, which made that first trip such a powerful homecoming.

"This will be his claim to fame, being here in his mom's hometown. He's been excited and I've seen it in his face. So I told him he would enjoy it watching the game from the stands on Saturday. He lost his smile for a few seconds until he realized I was joking around."
-- Bruins coach Claude Julien

However, it can't even compare to what Thornton now is experiencing.

This past week, he bought his mother a plane ticket to come to Belfast to watch him play in Saturday's 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere challenge exhibition against the Belfast Giant Selects at Odyssey Arena here.

"Thank god I had enough air miles," he said, laughing.
While Thornton's mother is here, she will be able to reconnect with family still based here and also revisit a city she left as a child to settle in Canada.

"She left when she was really young," Thornton said. "I've heard a couple stories from grandparents, but I have a lot to learn."

That education began upon arrival Thursday and will continue until he and the Bruins depart for Prague on Sunday. During his three days in Belfast, Thornton wants to experience all that his ancestral home has to offer.

He was going to a team dinner Thursday night, but he planned to start his exploration of this quaint and charming city, which has one of the richest and most complex histories of any city in Europe, after eating.

"I'm looking forward to having a Guinness and grabbing a pint in a pub somewhere," he said.

Plus, he admits he can't wait to play in front of the 20 family members and friends on the guest list for Saturday's game.

Sure, with all that is going on, there has to be a natural fear that the distractions could become too overwhelming.

Boston coach Claude Julien, though, made sure his message of this being a work trip first and foremost got through to Thornton and his mates.

When asked about the excitement Thornton has displayed about this trip, Julien took a well-placed jab at his resident tough guy.

"This will be his claim to fame being here in his mom's hometown," Julien said. "He's been excited and I've seen it in his face. So I told him he would enjoy it watching the game from the stands on Saturday. He lost his smile for a few seconds until he realized I was joking around."

Yes, Julien was joking around. Of course Thornton will be in the lineup Saturday. He is an undeniable storyline as the Bruins invade Belfast.

But it also is clear that Julien's business-first message has made an impact on everyone -- even the guy dealing with more distractions than the rest.

"We're not here on a vacation," Thornton said. "Obviously, it is nice for me getting back, but we have a job at hand. We have to get ready for next week's games in Prague and we need to take steps in that direction."
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