By Bill Whitehead
New Florida fourth-liner Shawn Thornton is well aware of his role on his new team. It’s a position he’s been locking down since his days in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I’m not really good at a lot of things, to be completely honest. I probably strive to be a little better than average at most things. But taking care of myself…I’ve had a fairly tough upbringing. I’ve always been able to take care of myself,” said Thornton, 36, on Thursday.
“The fighting role started when the Peterborough Petes drafted me. They basically said, ‘If you’re going to play here, you’re not going to be a defenseman any more. You’re going to play forward on the fourth line, and if you’re playing on the fourth line, you’re going to have to stick up for everybody.’”
Two decades later full of seasons that usually had triple-digit PIMs, Thornton has taken his talents to the Panthers, where he will be arm’s length or closer and in a bellicose state from opposing tough guys who dare to take a run at the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad or any other player wearing Panthers red.
Thornton started boxing at 16 in his hometown of Oshawa, and he continued to do so in the early 2000s when he developed a shoulder problem while playing for the Norfolk Admirals. He still boxes and will be in California next week working on his skills in the ring.
However, the immediate impact of boxing – the literal impact of smashing one’s fist into a fellow pugilist’s face – isn’t the allure of the sport.
“I never had any amateur fights. I never really did it to help me in hockey fights. It doesn’t translate. But the conditioning aspect of it is superb and that’s why I do it. I’ve always taken pride in my conditioning my whole life. And being able to contribute in more ways than just my fists,” Thornton said.
“I’ve worked very hard over the last 16 yrs to become more than a one-dimensional hockey player. I bring other things to the table. I’m fairly smart defensively, pretty good positionally. Winning a couple of Cups helps.
“Being an enforcer and an agitator are too different things. Usually I have to clean up the mess of the agitators.”
Thornton has a strong friendship with Krys Barch, the player he’s essentially replacing on the fourth line, though he added that Barch is a better hockey player than fans give him credit for. Thornton actually helped Barch learn to fight in the minors and estimates they’ve tangled 10 times. Thornton also is close to Travis Moen: The pair roomed together for five years and were invited to each’s wedding.
“That’s part of the job,” Thornton said of fighting with friends. “We’re not the WWE where we’re pulling punches. It’s either me or him (out there). It’s understood and part of the job.”
The genuine nature of Thornton was evident when he discussed his regret on the hit on Brooks Orpik last Dec. 7 in Boston. After Orpik kneed Loui Eriksson, Thornton tried to fight the former Penguin defenseman. When he refused, Thornton used a sneak attack similar to another on Dec. 7, Pearl Harboring Orpik with a slew foot and hitting him twice in the head, which resulted in a concussion and the current Washington Capital being taken off the ice on a stretcher.
“It was unfortunate. I’m friends with Brooksy. My intention was never to knock him out or hurt him. If I were going to take a (15-game suspension), it wouldn’t have been on him, believe me. I still don’t like it. I did my 6 weeks. I lost a good amount of change,” said Thornton, who lost over $84,000 in salary.
“It probably took a few weeks after that to get back into it and start playing the same way. It was unfortunate and I shouldn’t have done it.”
Of the Panthers, Thornton pointed to the obvious talent and youth.
“The skill level is obviously second to none. I was asking Tuukka about Barkov last year because I didn’t know much about him. But playing against him, you definitely notice him. Playing again (Erik Gudbranson) the last couple of years, he was extremely hard to play against. Every time I dug into a corner, I knew it was going to be a rough one coming out. These guys are starting to come into their own…and play the game the right way. Hopefully the guys Dale has brought in for leadership will help out along the way,” he said.
“Willie Mitchell and David Bolland have both won (the Stanley Cup) twice, so I guess I won’t come in to the locker room and say, ‘This is how I did it, this is how I did it.’”
When late June rolled around and the free agent period was looming, I made a short list of UFAs I felt the Panthers should pursue. Making the top five was Thornton – a leader, a winner, an enforcer and veteran who will show these young Cats how the game is supposed to be played for the most part, minus any water squirting, of course.
“I was talking to (Florida GM) Dale (Tallon) a few days before, and Florida was my first choice. I like where the team’s going. I like the moves they’ve made in the offseason. I’ve been down there with the wife. We’re really excited to be a part of it,” Thornton admitted.
“At this point, I know my role and my job fairly well and he didn’t need to stress too much to me. We’ve known each other a long time and he knows how self-aware I am. There wasn’t too much to be said other than he was excited that I was excited to come there. I was very pleased that they were as interested.
“I’m excited for the next chapter.”
Florida fans should be equally excited, too, because no opponent will run any Panther with impunity like Rick Nash did to Tomas Kopecky and Mike Richards did to David Booth.
Shawn Thornton won’t stand by idly and simply watch that take place.
Follow Bill Whitehead on Twitter @BillWhiteheadFL and in Scripps newspapers online at TCPalm.com