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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Better Days

Joe Thornton is happy to be out of Boston, and the Sharks are elated to have him to jump-start their offense

Ten seconds into his first shift as a San Jose Shark last Friday, Joe Thornton burst over the blue line and clanged a slap shot off the goalpost in Buffalo. After Thornton returned to the bench moments later, coach Ron Wilson, the NHL's resident wit, leaned over and said, "Joe, those shots are going to have to go in from now on."

The next day, three hours before he would notch two assists in a 5-4 win over the Maple Leafs--a victory he would secure by whipping Eric Lindros on a face-off and muscling the puck out of the Sharks' zone in the final seconds--Thornton laughed as he told the story. The erstwhile face of the Bruins for seven fruitless seasons wore a broad smile; Thornton is a point-per-game center who looks good in teal.

While the prospect of marquee trades initially seemed dim in the league's new salary-cap era, last week Thornton, 26, became the second big-name player to change teams since the season started. (Last month Sergei Fedorov went from Anaheim to Columbus.) The Bruins, losers of nine of 10 at the time, dealt Thornton to San Jose, which had dropped nine straight, for defenseman Brad Stuart, left wing Marco Sturm and center Wayne Primeau. In the wake of the three-year, $20 million contract that Thornton signed last summer, the trade dripped of buyer's remorse, despite Boston general manager Mike O'Connell's protestations. "[Thornton] did everything he could for the Bruins," O'Connell said last Friday. "He was a valuable player."

But there is a sense among some G.M.'s that while indisputably a first-rate center, Thornton, the top pick in the 1997 draft, won't ever make the leap from being a good player to one of the league's elite. Thornton, whose Boston teams won one postseason series during his tenure, was eviscerated in the media while being held pointless as Boston blew a three-games-to-one lead against Montreal in the first round of the 2004 playoffs. Thornton, who played with cartilage damage in three ribs, said he felt that management failed to support him. "You see other G.M.'s sticking up for their players," he says. "[This is] the way the Bruins do business. You come to expect it." Thornton says his relationship with Bruins management had never been right "from Day One."

With the arrival of Thornton, San Jose, a 2004 Western Conference finalist, won two in a row for the first time in a month. In those two games he won 14 of 18 face-offs in the offensive zone for a team that had ranked 26th in the league in face-off percentage. "And now we're getting Patty Marleau going," Wilson said of his now No. 1A center. "Joe's gotten four points, but Patty's had six in those games. Joe makes everybody better."

In Boston, Wilson might get an argument.


Provincial Idea: Vive Quebec!

While unveiling his party's platform on Nov. 30, in advance of the Jan. 23 parliamentary elections, Gilles Duceppe, leader of the separatist Bloc Quebecois party, said the province should field its own team in most international hockey events, naming Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and José Théodore as Quebec-born goalies who could be the team's foundation. An intrigued Canadian Press responded by selecting an all-Quebec team and one for the rest of Canada, making position-by-position comparisons. (Canada got the edge.)

Duceppe's idea violates International Ice Hockey Federation by-laws, but he is undaunted. After running through his list of goalies, he quipped, "Tomorrow I'll give you the defense."

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Thornton's scoring and face-off skills were sorely needed in San Jose.