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Inside the Cage: The Machine Powers On

Despite Knee Surgery & Losing a Longtime Teammate, Thornton's Sights are Set High in 20th NHL Season

by Ross McKeon @rossmckeon /

There's a new longest-tenured Shark in town, and he's not about to let anything stand in his way of a continued pursuit of the Stanley Cup.

Joe Thornton saw longtime running mate Patrick Marleau depart, underwent a summer of rehabilitation and condition following knee surgery and had a big decision to make about who would sign his checks, too.

And, as he embarks Wednesday on a 20th season in the National Hockey League, all is good again in Jumbo's world.

"He's a machine, it's unbelievable," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "He continues to amaze. But that's why he's had the career he's had, and that's why he's the leader he is."

Thornton is maybe the least surprised considering what he's gone through to be ready for Opening Night. Heck, he's the same guy who barely missed any time before skating in Games 3-6 of last spring's playoff series against Edmonton despite tearing his ACL and MCL late in the regular season.

Offseason surgery to repair tears to the most significant ligaments in his left knee followed, and Thornton set his sights on being ready for training camp. He not only worked tirelessly while following doctors' orders, Thornton also heeded advice of team trainers to strengthen the quadriceps in each leg to aid in taking more wear and tear off his repaired knee.

"I feel like I have a lot of pop out there," Thornton admitted. "They're (the quads) probably as strong as they've ever been just because I had to rehab that knee."

Thornton returned to the ice at the start of August, then took a little time off before ramping back up toward the end of the month in advance of training camp. Sure enough, Jumbo participated 100 percent on the first day, and hasn't missed a beat since.

"Nothing that guy does surprises me anymore. I've seen what he plays through," teammate Logan Couture said. "He loves the game of hockey, he's just happy to be back. I couldn't believe it at the time, I couldn't believe he was skating three days after the injury.

"That's one where all the other hockey players I've talked to around the league are shocked about it. They've had guys with the same injury, and they've been out for 6-7 weeks." After the surgery and before his skates touched the ice again, Thornton found himself getting courted by a number of NHL teams inquiring about the free agent's services. Thornton has typically signed only three-year deals throughout his career, but this was going to be a different opportunity for negotiation. First off, he was coming off of a major injury that necessitated surgery. Second, his age of 38 by the time the new season was to start, could scare some suitors away. And there was his loyalty to both the Sharks and longtime teammate Patrick Marleau, whom he hoped would return as well.

Thornton said thanks, but no thanks to everyone but the Sharks. And he gave general manager Doug Wilson options for his signing if anything could benefit Marleau as well. Later the same day Marleau opted for a three-year deal with Toronto, Thornton gave his OK to a one-year contract with the Sharks.

"Jumbo is one of the most unique athletes - forget about hockey players - that I've ever seen," Wilson said. "And nobody loves the game more than Joe Thornton. The amount of work he's put in rehab-wise and fitness-wise is such an inspiration to everybody in this organization.

"There's not many Joe Thorntons, I've got to be honest with you. You talk about culture, it starts with people who truly have a passion and love for the game to put in the work and energy to not only play at that level but to come back from an injury that set him back, too."

Thornton knows he'll miss Marleau's talents on the ice and help with veteran leadership in the room. And while he wishes the player selected right behind him in the 1997 NHL Draft was still a teammate, he knows things change in this game.

"I've spent a lot of years with him, and it is kind of strange," Thornton said. "Patty's going to do great up in Toronto. He's still a friend, we're going to miss him. But he's in a different uniform and we're in the same one."

As a number of Sharks who were either hampered by injury or felt like they had down years, Thornton is looking to bounce back after scoring seven goals and 50 points in 79 games. Entering 2017-18 13th all-time in assists (1,007) and 22nd in points (1,391), Jumbo is looking to rebound from his lowest point output during a full season since 1998-99.

"A lot of guys, myself, everybody has to step up a little bit and score a couple more goals this year," he said. "Any team that plays us knows they're in for a hard night, and that's kind of what we hang our hat on. We compete hard every night, and Pete really stresses that. "We had a good team last year, and I think we'll have a great team this year. I just want to compete hard every night, be reliable and do what I usually do."

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