SAN JOSE, Calif. – To say that Tuesday is a “big” day in San Jose doesn’t feel like an accurate description.
It’s the return of Joe Thornton to the franchise that he was the face of for parts of three decades.
From 2005 until the end of the 2019-20 season, Thornton represented the San Jose Sharks as one of the best and most consistent players in the NHL.
He hadn’t touched the ice at SAP Center or skated in front of Sharks fans since leaving the team following that pandemic-shortened season, but that is something that will change tonight.
Which brings me back to my original thought, that calling it a “big” night just seems to fall short.
I’ve spent the past two days around both the visiting Florida Panthers and hometown Sharks, watching them practice and interact with each other at the local training facility and hearing what they had to say to the media.
Regardless of who was speaking or which team they played for, the topic of Thornton’s return dominated most conversations.
So yeah, tonight isn’t just a “big” night.
It’s a Jumbo night in San Jose.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Thornton said following Tuesday’s morning skate. “I’m going to enjoy every minute of it. It’s a great place and I’m really looking forward to it.”
It was clear that the focus would be on Jumbo Joe while the Panthers were in town from the moment the team arrived at San Jose’s practice rink, Solalr4America Ice, late Monday morning.
The Sharks wrapped up their practice right around the time Florida arrived for their workout.
Longtime San Jose defenseman Brent Burns climbed aboard some kind of motorized bike (honestly, I have no idea exactly what it was) and led a small contingent of Sharks players to the far ice surface, where Florida was preparing to practice.
Wearing only a massive smile and his hockey under-stuff, Thornton came rushing out for a few minutes to greet his friends and former teammates.
It wasn’t a long conversation, as Thornton and the Panthers were minutes away from taking the ice, but it showed how these longtime friends wanted to soak up every moment they could while Jumbo was in town.
“He was one of the best players in the world for I think it was 15 years,” said Sharks forward Logan Couture. “For players that played here, and fans got to watch him on a nightly basis, it was a treat. Every night he would do something very few in the world could do.”
Couture played 11 seasons with Thornton in San Jose.
Both former first round picks, Thornton helped Couture grow as a player both on and off the ice, understanding the pressure and expectations that come with being selected so high (remember, Jumbo was the first overall pick in 1997).
“For me, he always added that little extra drive,” Couture said. “You know you can’t miss a day because Jumbo was always going to be there, and if you miss a day, he’s going to give it to you. A lot of guys have that same work ethic now, and I think a lot of that reason is because of Joe.”
Eventually Thornton and the Panthers hit the ice for their off-day workout, and for the first time in several weeks, Jumbo wasn’t wearing a white non-contact jersey.
Despite being on Injured Reserve for the past month with an undisclosed injury, Thornton had been practicing for a while and appeared to be trending in the right direction to, at the very least, play in San Jose when Florida came to town.
Well, here we are in San Jose and there’s Jumbo no longer on IR and skating on the Panthers top line with Sasha Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe.
“I’m excited for him,” said Panthers Interim Head Coach Andrew Brunette. “Those nights are hard a lot of times to keep your emotions in check, but he’s been around, been there, done that. I think he’s going to have fun with it and I’m expecting him to have a good game for us.”
It should be a special night for all involved, as Thornton touched a lot of hearts during his stay in Northern California.
He led San Jose to the postseason in all but two of his 15 seasons with the team, reaching four conference finals and coming within two wins of the Stanley Cup in 2016.
“He was the pillar of this organization,” said Sharks Head Coach Bob Boughner. “There’s no other player. When you think about the San Jose Sharks, Jumbo is the first guy that comes to mind. He’s missed in the locker room, and he’s missed amongst his teammates that were here playing with him.
“I think everybody is in the same boat pulling for him, and hopefully he has a chance to win something.”
Added Couture: “I think you look back on those teams, some special teams with some very good players, that just really proves how tough it is to win the Stanley Cup in this in this league.”
That’s the big one.
Thornton made the conscious decision that signing as a free agent with the Florida Panthers would give him the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup.
He’s playing in his 24th NHL season. Former league MVP. Six All-Star appearances. An Olympic gold medal. A World Junior championship.
The Cup is the only thing left to achieve.
“He’s done everything,” said Boughner. “The one thing he’s missing is the Stanley Cup.”
On a day where so much of the focus is on the past, I asked Thornton if he is still confident, all these months later, that signing with Florida was the right move.
He immediately began talking about how much he loved not only his teammates, but the coaches, the training staff, really everyone he interacts with under the Panthers umbrella.
There is always an unknown when you sign with a new team, but those apprehensions are long gone.
Thornton knows he’s in as good a place as he could be if he wants to get his name engraved on hockey’s Holy Grail.
“This is a very, very good hockey team,” he said. “We obviously have some work to do still in the regular season, but we expect big things.”