For months, the seemingly innocuous decision by Sharks management to remove the captaincy from Joe Thornton and turn it into a rotating letter-of-the-week discussion point has sat atop the franchise like a dirigible. It has been given a throw-weight that only Toronto Maple Leafs media and fans and their ability to make Urals out of molehills can truly appreciate.
So of course the topic came up again Thursday night, 68 games into an 82-game season at a Sharks’ season ticket holders Q&A session with general manager Doug Wilson. And Wilson answered the question thusly, according to the San Jose Mercury News’ David Pollak:
“He cares about the game so much. The reason we took the 'C' off him . . . Joe carries the weight of the team on his shoulders, and he's got such a big heart that when stress comes on him, he lashes out at people, and it kind of impacts them. The pressure and stress, I felt, was getting to Joe, and I sat him down and said we need other players to step up and share this. He got it. He didn't like it, but he got it and he understood it.”
To which Thornton, speaking to Pollak yesterday, said, “Doug should shut his mouth. All I've got to say is I've been here every day working hard. I haven't taken a sabbatical. He just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth."
Well, that seems like a whole new level of understanding.
Thornton’s response, which, in keeping with his general feeling on the subject, is the first strident public demonstration of his dissatisfaction. To the extent that a star at odds with his boss’ boss is a thing, this is a thing, and it isn’t likely to vanish soon.
The issue hasn’t prevented Thornton from being one of the team’s most effective players yet again, and is fairly far down on the list of reasons why the team is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. But it still has an atomic weight of “What the hell is up here?” and needs to be heeded by all involved parties -- yes, including the season ticket holders.
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“If he’s got an issue, he knows exactly where I am, and I’ll be glad to talk to him about it,” Wilson told CSNCalifornia.com. “There’s zero issue here. I was asked a question at a season ticket holder function, and my response was to do my job and be accountable to our season ticket holders and tell the truth. It’s nothing I haven’t said before.”
In terms of greater impact on the franchise, the friction between Wilson and Thornton, in whatever ratio it exists, seems relatively negligible. The Sharks have enough on their plate just trying to dig out of 10th place in the Western Conference to be discombobulated by a contretemps between general manager and highest-paid player. This is, frankly, not a new development, and the Sharks will not be able to claim this under the “miscellaneous adversity reference” clause in their media interactions.
The timing, though, stinks. After Saturday’s game against Chicago, the Sharks have a seven-game trip to Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where this new version of an old story will become Topic A for a team that needs to win nine of its final 14 games to have even a counterpuncher’s chance of making the playoffs.
Plus, it is part of the debate that will rage outside the team this summer when the discussion of the 2015-16 Sharks is joined. Wilson and Thornton will either find common cause after much clashing of swords, they will let the swords do their talking, or they will freeze each other out for the life of their relationship. It’s one of those nagging talking points that people in sports hate because it never really goes away no matter how circumstances may change.
But Thornton and Wilson both knew the job was dangerous when they took it. And now they’re linked by it for the foreseeable future.