It was a moment that comes only once in a generation.
On March 6, the San Jose Sharks visited the Winnipeg Jets in a late season game with both teams hungry for points to solidify playoff positions. With teammate Patrick Marleau having reached 500 goals only a month before, all eyes were on Joe Thornton as he tried to get 1,000 assists.
For several games, Joe Thornton seemed to be on the cusp of reaching the milestone, but couldn't quite get that assist. But finally, the moment came late in the game against the Winnipeg Jets.
In the final minute of the third, the Sharks were up 2-1 thanks to goals by Joe Pavelski and Mikkel Boedker. The Jets had pulled their goalie for an extra attacker. Joe Thornton was on the ice, with 999 assists already in the bank.
In a play that certainly won't rank as one of his best assists in his career (and he has many to choose from), Thornton passed the puck from the defensive zone across to Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Vlasic in turn passed it up to Joe Pavelski, whose shot from the blue line squeaked past Nikolaj Ehlers to roll into the empty net.
The goal ended up being the game-winner, giving the Sharks two points and more cushion in the standings.
Video: SJS@WPG: Thornton records 1,000th assist on late goal
"Honestly, I've been lucky enough to stay healthy all these years and play with a lot of good scorers," Thornton said after the game. "For a passer that's probably the key, having the Jonathan Cheechoos, the Glen Murrays, the Joe Pavelskis, the Patty Marleaus, the list goes on and on and on the guys that I've played with over the years who put the puck in the back of the net."
His teammates also had plenty to say about the achievement.
"That's amazing. To play on the team with a guy who gets 1,000 assists? That's remarkable," Mikkel Boedker told reporters. "I think it says everything about who he is and he's a giver and he's a playmaker and he's the wheel behind the team and it's extraordinary."
Brenden Dillon called the achievement, "Unbelievable. Over the years, he's been one of if not the best passer in the game. It's pretty incredible to be able to practice with him every day to see how much work he puts in to get to the level he's at at the age that he's at."
Coincidentally, it was Joe Thornton's 900th game as a member of the San Jose Sharks, making him only the 11th player in NHL history to play 900+ games with a club to which he was traded. And by scoring his 1,000th assist, he became only the 13th player in the NHL to do so.
Joe Thornton has long been considered as one of the premiere playmakers in hockey, and one of the best in NHL history. Only three players in the history of the league have had back-to-back 90+ assist seasons: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Joe Thornton.
Thornton is also the only player besides Jaromir Jagr to score 1,000 assists after beginning their careers in 1990 or later.