Shawn Thornton is still in Boston, and is even planning to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway this weekend. But reality is sinking in that the former Bruins enforcer is now a member of the Florida Panthers for the next couple of seasons, and as such had his first interaction with the Ft. Lauderdale/Miami media on Thursday in a conference call introduction.
The fourth line grinder initially wanted to return to the Bruins if there was any possibility of it, but said that the Panthers were actually his top NHL choice once he hit unrestricted free agency. It’s not hard to envision why: the South Florida locale is full of golf courses and beaches open all year round, the income tax situation is a pro athlete's dream and the team on the ice is young, improving and in need of a little guidance from a two-time Cup champion like Thornton.
"It's no different than anything in life,” said Thornton in the conference call with the Panthers media. "You spend seven and a half years somewhere, you're going to have a lot of ties and you're going to have a lot of memories. I was fortunate to be on a pretty good team the last five years that I was here, so it was a lot of fond memories. But I'm excited for the next chapter.
“Florida was my first choice. I like where the team is going. I obviously know Dale from Chicago. I love the area. I've already been down a couple of times checking it out with the wife. We're really, really excited to be a part of it.”
There’s no question Thornton is also feeling fortunate with a gig for the next couple of years as some of his fellow enforcers aren’t having the same kind of luck. Paul Bissonnette, George Parros, Kevin Westgarth, Mike Rupp and Krys Barch are all scouring for jobs without many openings remaining among the 30 NHL teams. In fact the 37-year-old Thornton became Barch’s replacement when he inked the two-year deal with the Panthers on July 1.
Proponents of fighting would hope that the lack of contract offers for that rugged group isn’t a trend that means hockey fights are on their way out of the sport.
But that’s a large group of honest enforcers currently in the unemployment line.
Florida GM Dale Tallon was part of the Chicago Blackhawks front office that initially brought Thornton to the NHL level at the start of his career, and those kinds of connections mean a lot in hockey circles.
“A long time ago we started off together,” said Tallon. "I signed him to his first contract. He can play it any way you want. He'll surprise you with his skills and he'll score some highlight-film goals, but he knows his role.
“His fitness level is incredible, his nutrition. He'll really be a great leader in our locker room for our young guys. He'll show them the way. He and Derek [MacKenzie] will really make a good tandem. It'll be hard to play against. It's a fourth line that will play with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and toughness.”
Thornton appeared to slow down just a touch in his final season with the Bruins, and it seems that Boston will be going away from regularly having an enforcer in their lineup this season. But his toughness, character and leadership qualities are undeniable, and Florida got themselves a player that will help protect talented youngsters like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau as they make their way as members of a hopeful Panthers club.