By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com Bruins Insider Follow @hackswithhaggs
Leadership in hockey can be a funny thing.
Any successful team is built on the bedrock foundation of tireless work, controlled anger and the willingness to stand up for wronged teammates. The Bruins had all these traits last winter.
Zdeno Chara became only the second European to hold an NHL captaincy on a Stanley Cup winning team last June and boasts all three qualities in high order.
Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi were Charas trusted assistant captains from Game 1 at the O2 Arena in Prague all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Canucks.
The Black and Gold leadership was as good as it gets. Those three players helped navigate the Bruins through a challenging regular season and chose the correct times to call together players only meetings at key points in the season.
It was Recchi, Bergeron and Chara who convened a meeting in Pittsburgh in January after the Bruins had imploded in the third period against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. It was the same three individuals who managed to prevent any potential front-office tension from spilling over into the dressing room during times of trouble, and kept the team focused once the CharaMax Pacioretty zoo was created in Montreal.
The leadership truly couldnt have been any better for a hockey team full of big personalities and considerable talent, and they were fully supported by a strong cast of veteran characters like Andrew Ference, Shawn Thornton, Chris Kelly and Shane Hnidy.
But times change and hockey teams evolve, and the balance within the leadership group was significantly altered when three-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Recchi decided to call it a career at age 43.
Recchis calming, paternal effect on young players was uncanny, and his unyielding toughness while playing through kidney stones in the 2008-09 playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes was the stuff of legend.
Theres no way to replicate that in the Bruins room.
Signing a marginal vet like Chris Clark to a camp tryout isnt going to get it done either. But life will go on for the Cup champions in their attempts to repeat, and the team needs to go about the business of naming another assistant captain.
Claude Julien and the Bruins have a couple of choices: Go back to their previous policy of rotating the second A around the team and giving it to three or four players for a period of time through the season, or simply name one high profile leader of hockey men as the assistant captain.
Julien made it clear during the State of the Bruins that it would be a decision made by the group inside the walls of their dressing room without feedback from the outside.
If its a permanent assistant captain chosen to replace Recchi, then there can really be only one choice: Shawn Thornton.
The Bruins' tough guy is universally respected within the Bs dressing room, is now one of the longest tenured players on the roster, and is the only player whos decided to make Boston his permanent home. The hard work, emotion and courage so intrinsically linked to hockey greatness serve as the framework to his game, and Thornton already boasts everything but the letter on his sweater.
It was the Bs enforcer, after all, who helped create one of the turning points in the season when he scored a pair of goals and single-handedly helped the Bruins beat down the Atlanta Thrashers as the vultures circled around Julien during a team slump last December. It was Thornton who went after Matt Cooke two years ago to clean the slate with the Pittsburgh hatchet man, and right the ultimate wrong.
Thornton is always the honest voice within the dressing room, telling teammates what they might not want to hear and demanding accountability from everyone up and down the lineup.
It was Thornton who always offers to help a new players transition to the Bruins' way of doing things. It was Thornton who opened his home in Charlestown to Byron Bitz several seasons ago when the rookie didnt have a permanent place to live, and has similarly taken young players from Tyler Seguin to Tuukka Rask under his wing.
There may even be some truth to the whispers that it was Thornton who finally approached Brad Marchand during his wild, shirtless week of celebration in Boston following the Cup victory and advised the Bs rat to cool down and head back to Halifax for a while.
While its true there arent many enforcers wearing the C or A on their sweaters around the NHL these days, Thornton has become the heart and soul of the Bruins as much as any other player on Bostons highly successful hockey club.
No. 22 is coming off his best season as a pro and knows exactly what it takes to win as the only two-time Stanley Cup champ on the Bs roster headed into camp. The positives of giving Thornton the A on his sweater far outweigh any potential negatives that could be out there.
While Ference or perhaps even a younger player like Milan Lucic might be a reasonable selections as an assistant captain in Recchis stead, theres really only one name that could lend the kind of leadership Boston will need in their attempts to repeat as Stanley Cup champs.
The Bruins should vote Thornton in 2012 if they again want to be on a winning ticket this time around.