No butterflies this time for Sharks' Thornton

Few feelings in the world are worse than being told you’re not wanted. Doesn’t matter who says it to you or the situation, it is the closing of one door in your life.

On the flip side, it’s also the opening of another.

In the NHL, few have made the most of a new beginning than Joe Thornton has with the San Jose Sharks.

He’ll lead the Western Conference’s top team into Boston on Tuesday night to face his former team, the Bruins. It’s been more than three years after the former top overall pick was shipped west, and where he’s enjoyed the success that was expected after lighting up scoreboards throughout the Ontario Hockey League.

More than a dozen years ago, Thornton filled up stat sheets in juniors. Playing for Sault Ste. Marie in 1996-97, the 6-foot-4 Thornton scored 122 points in just 59 games and also displayed a nasty edge by picking up 123 penalty minutes.

That was more than enough for the Bruins, who finished last in the Eastern Conference with 26 wins and 61 points, giving them the top overall pick for the first time since taking Gord Kluzak 15 years earlier.

The impact Thornton was expected to provide? That didn’t come so quickly. At just 18 years old - and 180 pounds – he spent a good portion of his first NHL season battling injuries. A broken forearm. Cellulitis in one ankle. A viral infection

His totals as a rookie: three goals and four assists in 55 games.

But as Thornton matured and hit the weight room, he started to blossom, leading the Bruins with 37 goals in 2001. In 2002-03, he had his first 100-point season and played in his second straight All-Star Game.

All that changed on Nov. 30, 2005. With the Bruins having lost nine of 10 and the Sharks stuck in an 0-7-3 slide, the teams pulled off a blockbuster trade.

Boston sent Thornton to San Jose for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau. For Thornton, the news was somewhat shocking.

“I never in juniors had gotten traded,” he said. “It was a little weird, a little emotional to be leaving. But really, after I got traded, from that night on, it was tough, and then the morning came and I flew and I met my new teammates with the Sharks.

“I think after really that first 24 hours, I think it wasn't hard, it was just back to business, I think. It wasn't too tough after that.”

He certainly made an immediate impact with his new club, scoring three goals with 11 assists in his first six games with the Sharks, all wins. Since the trade and through Saturday, Thornton leads the league with 359 points, including 276 assists.

That’s more than fellow No. 1 picks Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Ilya Kovalchuk and Vincent Lecavalier.

Though he split time between the east and west coasts in 2005-06, he finished with 125 points to win the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, and Hart Trophy as its most valuable player.

“I think it's worked out well for me, obviously,” Thornton said. “But you know, I thought it was going good in Boston, as well, though. I don't think there was anything wrong there to be honest with you.

“I was young then and now I'm just maturing to be an adult now. So I think just maturity-wise you get to know the game a little bit better, you get more confidence, and you just know your body a little bit more. I think it just really is two parts of a hockey player that I was.”

Paired with Patrick Marelau and rookie Devin Setoguchi, Thornton again leads the Sharks with 45 assists and 57 points this season. Going back to Boston this time, however, he also will hope for a little more ice time than he got in January 2006.

That was when he returned to the TD Banknorth Garden. Just 5:13 into the contest, though, Thornton was given a major and a game misconduct for checking 6-foot-7, 250-pound defenseman Hal Gill from behind.

While conceding his return to Beantown was awkward, Thornton doesn’t expect to have any butterflies this time.

“There's not too many ex-teammates over there, and it's just really an important game in the schedule,” he said. “They're the best in the east, and we're the best in the west. So it's an important game that way rather than I'm playing against friends, I think.”

As for any extra motivation to beat his old team – either on Tuesday or, perhaps, in the playoffs – Thornton says there is none.

“You just play hockey, and that's what I do. I'm a hockey player,” he said.

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