SAN JOSE – The rift between Joe Thornton and Sharks general manager Doug Wilson came to a head on Friday, but the evidence that there was something wrong presented itself much earlier than that.
On the first day of training camp on Sep. 19, the veteran center spoke publicly for the first time after Wilson suggested several times throughout the summer that there was something off with the team’s dressing room culture and leadership structure.
Thornton was asked that day about Wilson’s proclamation that the Sharks were now a “tomorrow team,” a phrase Wilson used in conjunction with entering a rebuilding phase after San Jose’s epic playoff collapse to the Kings.
“That’s Doug’s opinion. I think if you’d ask anybody in here, I don’t think they have the same feeling,” Thornton said. “We’re confident with this group.”
Is there any extra motivation there?
“I have enough motivation,” Thornton said. “I don’t need somebody else telling me we can’t do it.”
Earlier in the offseason, Thornton’s agent and brother John Thornton took a veiled shot at Wilson, too, in response to the San Jose Mercury News’ Tim Kawakami’s column in which Kawakami suggested the Sharks had a “cozy culture” in their locker room.
“A culture established by who again?” John Thornton said over Twitter.
That the Wilson and the Thornton camps haven’t seen eye-to-eye for the last several months is nothing new.
Still, It’s an odd time for the general manager to be tossing out new accusations when it comes to Thornton, even if the full quote from a season ticket holder Q and A session on Thursday included praise of the former captain. There are just 14 games left in the regular season and the Sharks are playing well, winning four of five games since the trade deadline. The playoffs – still an expectation even before this so-called year of transition began – are still a possibility.
Thornton, too, has hardly been an issue. Although he’s become dodgy with the media, perhaps not feeling obligated to speak as much now that he’s no longer captain, he seems to have the full backing of his teammates. When it was up to the coaching staff to choose who would be among the team's new captain-less leadership group, Thornton was chosen based on input from the roster.
Oh, and he’s also having another stellar season at age 35, tied for fifth in the NHL in assists (44) and placing second on the Sharks in points (57).
Still, Wilson’s suggestion that Thornton had a tendency to “lash out” at teammates is somewhat in line with what the esteemed associate coach/Director of Player Development Larry Robinson said over the summer to a Montreal radio station.
"[Thornton] had a tendency to sometimes have a cutting sense of humor, and sometimes people can take that the wrong way,” Robinson said. “He sometimes had a delivery which a lot of the young kids felt intimidated by, and you certainly can't be intimidated by your captain or even your assistants.
“You have to feel comfortable, and if you had a problem or if you need something or are looking for a lift, you usually look to your leaders and your captains to get out there. It's possible that maybe Joe didn't provide it for our team."
Perhaps a change to the leadership structure was necessary, but that’s old news now. The change was made, Joe Pavelski has become the public face of the organization, and for the last five months the team has been riding a roller coaster of a regular season – not because of Thornton or any single player, but because of a lack of depth at every position, and several young players that have been arguably rushed into the NHL after draft picks from years past were either traded away or failed to pan out.
And Thornton, of course, has a contract and full no-trade clause through 2016-17 that was hard to envision him waiving before or after all this. Wilson recently went on record saying he wouldn’t ever go to Thornton or Patrick Marleau and ask them to waive those clauses, either, so barring any major organizational blowups, these guys are stuck with one another.
Whether they can co-exist over the next two-plus years, or will be permitted to by team ownership, will be answered in time.