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Maple Leafs, Thornton unite long, painful quests for Stanley Cup glory

TORONTO — Joe Thornton was probably sound asleep under the Swiss Alps, resting up to open up his 24th professional hockey season, when the CN Tower alit in teal.

The colour long associated with the heart and soul of the San Jose Sharks — all their hopes and disappointments, fun times and funky beards — reflected across his brand-new NHL stomping ground, the one closest to his boyhood house in St. Thomas, Ont.

A Jumbo homecoming signalling Jumbo expectations. And it only required a minimum-wage salary. One year, $700,000 (free of 35-plus performance bonuses), and one more shot at the Stanley Cup dream Thornton has been hunting down for 41 years, 106 days and counting.

His ardent pursuers, the Toronto Maple Leafs, have been chasing the thing for 53 years, 164 days and counting.

Their mutual but separate quest, painfully futile for so long, will unite in 2020-21.

The NHL’s active leader in assists (1,089) and points (1,509) signed on to join the NHL’s active leader in heartbreak and hype.

Whether this whole thing ends in a parade or in shambles, who knows?

Either way, it’s a helluva story. And one singed with historical symmetry.

On Sept. 17, 1997, the same day Thornton registered his first-ever point in an NHL uniform (during a Bruins pre-season game), Auston Matthews was born.

Then there’s this: Thornton just happens to be the last active player to have scored a goal at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Heartstrings = pulled.

Financially, the Thornton contract is a small swing, on par with the organization’s Travis Boyd and Denis Malgin signings. (Fun fact: Calle Rosen can strut Ford Performance Centre this season knowing his paycheques are larger than that of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer.)

Emotionally, it’s a big deal — and one long in the works.

The Maple Leafs first pitched a UFA Thornton to sign alongside close friend Patrick Marleau back in the summer of 2017, with Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello pushing the upside of guiding their young, hyper-talented core.

Loyal Thornton instead stuck around San Jose until it became plain the Cup would no longer be within reach if he stayed put.

So, when Thornton expressed disappointment after being left untraded to a contender at the 2019 deadline, pulling him out of teal was worth another attempt.

GM Kyle Dubas called a week ago, when free agency opened last Friday. Coach Sheldon Keefe, too. Then the players encouraged one of hockey’s all-time most beloved characters and deftest passers to join the cause. Jake Muzzin. John Tavares. Matthews. Maybe more.

Thornton mulled it over. He texted back and forth with Marleau.

And when he decided to jump the Sharks, he called his longtime teammates — Tomas Hertl, Logan Couture, Brent Burns, probably more — and explained his decision. All class.

“Somebody that inspires everybody around him,” Dan Rusanowsky, San Jose’s play-by-play voice on KFOX 98.5 FM told Sportsnet 590 The Fan Friday.

“He’s going to help the Maple Leafs quite a lot, and he’ll be at the best when it matters the most.”

“He loves bringing everybody together,” Marleau told Good Show Friday.

“He does keep himself in great shape, and I think one thing that’s always a constant in his game is the size and reach, the way he can protect pucks and obviously his vision, and none of that has changed over his career.”

What has changed with Thornton is what changes with everyone who lives as long and tries as hard.

He has slowed down, considerably.

Which is to be expected after 1,636 regular-season NHL games and another 179 playoff contests; 73 games and counting in the Swiss League with HC Davos because he never takes a lockout or a pandemic to vacation; plus dozens more representing Team Canada on the national stage.

Thornton’s 2019-20 stat line — seven goals, 31 points, minus-19 rating, 49.4-per cent faceoff wins in 70 games — provides ammo to those who believe this could be last-legs Jaromir Jagr in Calgary all over again (one goal, six assists, 22 games, flight to Kladno).

But the Thornton-to-Leafs signing isn’t so much about him swiping a few more draws or popping a few more apples on the second power-play unit than Alexander Kerfoot.

It’s about character and culture. A room that needed shaking up, lightening up, perhaps smartening up.

And Dubas’s aggressive approach to crib from the Tampa Bay Lightning blueprint and surround his superstars with the right attitude on the fringes. Experienced yet hungry.

Guys who know what it takes to win playoff rounds 1, 2 and 3 — and how it feels to lose Round 4.

We remember Keefe revealing something very telling about the Maple Leafs’ dynamic amidst the roller-coaster 2019-20 when the coach was asked about Jason Spezza, and it had nothing to do with on-ice action.

“He’s been a great voice in the locker room and on the bench. You know, we don’t have a lot of guys that are overly vocal on the bench and talk a lot,” Keefe said. “He’s got a great rapport with the referees and linesmen. Those things make a difference for a young team like ours.”

Like Spezza, Wayne Simmonds and Zach Bogosian before him, Thornton is coming here to calm the nerves, steel the fragile, and read the room.

Leadership without letters.

“I like helping out the younger guys. I was born to play hockey, and I’ll play as long as I can, as long as I’m healthy,” Thornton told My Channel this week between tune-up sessions with HC Davos.

“I just love playing hockey. I really do. I have a passion for the sport.”

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