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Thornton Knows How Much Team Canada Means To His Homeland

by Staff Writer / San Jose Sharks
Most Americans of a certain age remember exactly where they were when the United States upset the Soviet Union in the 1980 "Miracle on Ice". Canadians, on the other hand, tend to remember where they were for every game Team Canada has ever played, win or lose, at the Olympics or World Junior Championships.

"Any time Canada puts on the jersey," 26-year-old San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton says, "it's a big event, and everybody gathers around to watch the games. Everybody watches, everybody cares, and everybody gets excited. It's life in Canada."

If it's a big game in the Olympics, streets are routinely deserted and the country effectively shuts down. Maybe, in truth, it starts up, because people come to life.

"People would throw these great parties and the game would be on at every bar in every town," Thornton recalls. "Even for the World Juniors."

In Torino, Italy, Thornton will use memories of the days when he used to rally around a TV with friends and family back home in St. Thomas, Ontario, to watch Team Canada, as inspiration.

"You remember what a big deal it is all across Canada, so when you play for Team Canada, you know everybody is watching and it gets you going."

Thornton will be one of the guys putting on the Canadian jersey in Italy, but he seems to suggest that his participation doesn't make his stake in the tournament's outcome more important than that of his fellow 32 million Canadians who will be watching on TV at home.

"It's such a big event for everyone back home," he says. "Everybody in Canada watches it, everybody in Canada talks about it. Obviously, the NHL is not going on, so when you have an Olympics, the entire focus is on the Canadian team."

So strong is the support back home, Thornton says, that it will reach across the pond.

"We'll be all the way over in Italy," he says, "but we'll still know that we have so many Canadians excited for us and cheering for us. It's emotional, and it's very exciting to be a part of it."

Thornton knows the feeling, having represented his country in two World Championships (2001, 2005), and in the 2004 World Cup. At times, Thornton says, playing for Canada can feel like "you're under a magnifying glass." But Thornton is accustomed to such scrutiny. As the first-overall pick of the 1997 Entry Draft, Thornton was watched closer than the Zapruder film in Boston.

After scoring just 19 goals in his first two NHL seasons, Thornton improved steadily, which is not always easy when you're expected to be an overnight sensation. He had 60 points (23 goals, 37 assists) in 1999-2000, followed by 71 (37 and 34) a year later, and 68 (22 and 46) in 2001-02. By the start of the 2002-03 season, Thornton was primed for a breakout. He went on to have a career year, registering 101 points on 36 goals and 65 assists.

Thornton's great vision and the long reach that goes along with his 6-foot-4, 223 pound frame have helped him to become one of the game's best passers. He has led the NHL in assists for most of the current season. Thornton changed teams and coasts this year as the principle of a shocking blockbuster trade on Nov. 30 that sent him from Boston to San Jose.

With a new West Coast address, Thornton, already is sounding more Californian than Canadian, says he might take up surfing. He was taken to task in Boston for possessing a laid-back demeanor more becoming of a surfer, for not being physical enough, and for not becoming the next Cam Neely.

"You can't please everyone," Thornton says.

When you play for Team Canada, however, you do so with the goal of pleasing an entire nation, every time you take the ice. Canada's expectation of success has rubbed some the wrong way. Could it be that other hockey-playing nations are jealous of Canada's success?

"I don't know about jealousy," Thornton says. "We've had so much success in the past that there are a lot of people who feel if they beat Canada they've had a great tournament. We realize that we're the team to beat. We just get excited to play every team."

Count Thornton among the legion of Canadian players who don't even need to play to get excited. The mere sight of a Team Canada sweater hanging in a locker stall is really all it takes.

"Seeing the Maple Leaf on your chest is the one thing that gets you all fired up," Thornton says. "You've seen teams in the past that have worn it, and it's such an honor in Canada to be able to wear it."

In living rooms and bars across Canada, merely watching it is honor enough.

Written by Doug Ward -
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