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Nearing twilight of NHL career, Sharks' Thornton still has deep love for hockey

TORONTO — Joe Thornton no longer wears the "C" on his chest and can't pile up the points like he used. That hasn't stopped him from loving hockey.

Thornton is 36, and his contract expires after the 2016-17 season. Even if he hasn't spent too much time reflecting on his career and insists he's not looking beyond next season, the San Jose Sharks veteran centre hasn't lost sight of why he plays the game.

"I just really, really enjoy coming to the rink every day," Thornton said Wednesday. "I have a smile on my face. I've got the best job in the world."

It's a job that will land Thornton in the Hockey Hall of Fame after he decides to hang up his skates. That decision is for another time, he said, with the focus on tomorrow and the next day and the next game.

When he suits up Thursday night at the Toronto Maple Leafs, it'll be the 1,316th game of Thornton's NHL career. His 1,276 points are second among active players to 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, who made his debut when Thornton was 11 years old.

"Jumbo is amazing," Sharks teammate Tomas Hertl said. "He'll be for sure in the Hall of Fame. I think, 'Thank You Joe,' because I started with him and he helped me with everything because first season I played with him and I scored very many goals and he helped for sure my career and I appreciate it."

Thornton has helped a lot of players' careers, from Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski in San Jose back to the likes of Glen Murray with the Boston Bruins. He won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2006, the same season the Bruins traded him to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau in one of the most lopsided deals in NHL history.

Even 10 years later, after Thornton led the Sharks to the Western Conference final twice and was part of nine playoff appearances, he's a valuable piece of San Jose's core.

"He consistently shows up at the rink, leads, works, plays away from the puck," first-year Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said. "He's a Hall of Fame player because he makes other people better every time he's on the ice. He always sees the ice, his vision. But the consistency in his game, there's never a day where I've questioned his commitment or his willingness to work."

That's because there's no shortage of willingness to work. Thornton only has four goals and 13 assists this season, but he's not discouraged at all by those numbers.

"I feel good," Thornton said. "I find as long as you're working hard, the chances will be there and good stuff will happen."

DeBoer sees good things in Thornton's all-around game. Thornton helped create a goal by Dainius Zubrus on Tuesday night in Montreal and eventually was given the secondary assist he deserved.

But at this point of his career, Thornton doesn't have to measure his performance on points alone. And he hasn't changed his game in recent years as much as he has kept on the same path.

"I think I've always been defensively conscious and things like that, but just for whatever reason the goals haven't been going in," Thornton said.

Thornton is so caught up in his day-to-day job with the Sharks that he hasn't had time to reflect back on what he has accomplished. If at this point he's a bit under-appreciated, DeBoer isn't worried about it.

"I think guys like that get their recognition maybe a little bit later, but he'll get his," DeBoer said. "There's no doubt."


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Stephen Whyno, The Canadian Press

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