SUNRISE, Fla. – I’ve got a new one for you.
Longtime NHL veteran and future Hall of Famer chooses to chase elusive Stanley Cup by signing with…the Florida Panthers.
Go ahead, re-read the line. Your eyes are not playing tricks on you.
Joe Thornton, the former first overall pick and veteran of 1,680 NHL games has decided to sign a one-year contract with Florida.
The deal is worth $750,000, Local 10 News has confirmed.
Apparently, the Panthers sent their offer to Thornton earlier this summer and despite the two sides being on the same page, a busy offseason kept the 42-year-old from adding his John Hancock to the dotted line.
“I’ve actually had the contract for a while, I just, for whatever reason, hadn’t gotten around to signing it,” Thornton said during a Zoom with the South Florida media on Friday. “I’ve been busy with the kids and training and things like that, but I got around to it, and here we are today.”
Obviously a big question for Thornton was why he decided, at his age and after playing for so long in the league, to sign with Florida.
Sure, the Panthers are absolutely a team on the rise. Anyone who has been paying attention the past couple seasons can see that, and the team took a big step forward last year under the strong management of general manager Bill Zito and his staff.
Thornton said it was his conversations with Zito, Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville and Roberto Luongo, another future Hall of Famer who has worked in the front office since retiring from the game, that convinced him Florida was the best place he could go to pursue the Stanley Cup.
“They were just so excited about their team, what they’re building down there, and I just thought I’d be a great fit with this group,” Thornton said. “Talking with Bill, Lu and Joel, it was an easy decision after that.”
It was a sentiment was likely felt on both sides of the negotiating table, as Thornton is a perfect fit with the new Panthers culture that has been cultivating in South Florida for the past year.
Off the ice, Thornton has a reputation for being an extremely hard and diligent worker, as well as a great teammate in the locker room.
On the ice, he does many of the things needed to have success in Quenneville’s systems, and he’s been doing them well for parts of four decades.
One of the best elements of Thornton’s game is how he can possess the puck and keep it away from the opposition.
He is also a solid two-way player who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in his own zone, and he’s been strong in the faceoff circle throughout his career. In fact, last season in Toronto, Thornton had his best year winning faceoffs in over a decade.
“With more than 1,600 games played in the NHL, Joe will bring a wealth of experience to our locker room and lineup,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “His drive to succeed is unmistakable and we are thrilled that he chose to sign with our club and that he believes in what we are building here in South Florida.”
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Thornton said the decision to sign with Florida and chase a Stanley Cup was “everything” to him.
“I see the team on paper, I watched the team last year, I love the team, and that’s it. I love what they’re building and I’m excited to be part of it. Everything is about ultimately winning the Stanley Cup and the Panthers are right there.”
He added: “They’re close, they really are. It doesn’t matter what happened in years past, this is a new team.”
While Thornton may not be the oldest active player in the NHL (44-year-old Zdeno Chara will hold that distinction, assuming he comes back for another year), it’s amazingly rare for anyone to have their career last so long.
Combine that with the incredible success he’s had basically since day one, the kind of man and teammate he is, and how much he appreciates and puts into the game…and you can see why Zito and co. wanted to add Thornton to what’s being built in Sunrise.
“I love the game,” he said. “I love the people that are part of the game. Everything about it is really great. I love going to the rink and putting in the work every day. Hockey is a huge part of my life and I’m just thankful that I can continue to play. I truly love this sport.”
Thornton also said his familiarity with the Panthers played a part in his decision to sign. He mentioned Quenneville, who coached him at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, and Luongo, with whom he played in several tournaments for Team Canada, including in 2010 when they won gold at the Winter Olympics held in Vancouver.
He was also really impressed with what he saw from Florida last season, particularly during their six-game playoff series against eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay.
“It was a great series, and I love their team. It left a big impression me,” he said.
When asked about his new teammates and what they’re working toward in Florida, Thornton couldn’t help but smile while discussing the prospects of what’s to come.
“Just the energy these guys bring every day…. they want to work every day, they want to get better every day, and they’re just excited to play. They love playing every night together, and I’m really looking forward to joining them on the journey.”
Finally, I also asked Thornton if his iconic, massive beard is going to survive living in the heat and humidity of South Florida.
“I don’t know. I haven’t spent too much time in Florida to be honest,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that, but I don’t know. We’ll see where it ends up here shortly.”