“Jumbo” Joe Thornton recorded an assist on Joe Pavelski’s empty-net goal last night at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg to earn his 1,000th career helper.
He collected the puck in his own end as the Jets tried to tie the game, made a short pass to Marc-Eduard Vlasic, and watched as Vlasic hit Pavelski with a pass at the Winnipeg blue line. Pavelski made no mistake with his shot, and the Sharks went on to win the game, 3-2.
It was hardly a classic, but no matter. Thornton has made enough incredible passes during his nearly two decades in the NHL to earn an easy one for a change.
The 1,000-assist milestone has been achieved by only 12 other players in NHL history. Wayne Gretzky leads the way with 1,963 followed by Ron Francis (1,249), Mark Messier (1,193), Ray Bourque (1,169), Jaromir Jagr (1,142), Paul Coffey (1,135), Adam Oates (1,079), Steve Yzerman (1,063), Gordie Howe (1,049), Marcel Dionne (1,040), Mario Lemieux (1,033), and Joe Sakic (1,016).
Thornton’s achievement is staggering given the huge disappointment of his rookie season. Drafted first overall by the Boston Bruins in 1997, Thornton made the team that fall at age 18, but struggled mightily, scoring only three goals in 55 games and adding four assists.
But in the coming years he worked hard to put on weight in the summer for added strength, and his once slender 6’4” frame became a powerful body that allowed him to dominate at the NHL level. By his sixth NHL season, Thornton had 36 goals and 101 points in the 2002/03 season, the same year he was named team captain. Yet the Bruins never had much playoff success with Thornton, and early in the 2005/06 season they traded him to San Jose.
Thornton went on to win the Art Ross Trophy as scoring leader, finishing the year with 125 points. He was—and still is—the only player in league history to win the Art Ross in a year he was traded.
Although Thornton was a solid scorer in junior, he developed into a world-class passer in the NHL. Using his size to create space and draw more than one opponent to him, he became deft at finding a free man near the net for an easy goal.
Internationally, Thornton is a familiar name and face to European hockey fans. He helped Canada take gold at the 1997 World Junior Championship and played at his first senior World Championship in 2001.
Although the 2004/05 season was a lost cause for the NHL, “Jumbo Joe” had a sensational year overseas. He played on Canada’s winning World Cup team in September 2004, and almost as soon as the lockout started he moved to Davos to play in the top Swiss league. He and Rick Nash helped the team win the league title, and the pair also helped Canada win the Spengler Cup.
At the end of the year, they played for Canada at the World Championship in Vienna, taking Canada to the gold-medal game. Thornton was named tournament MVP as Canada won silver.
Thornton also played at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, winning gold in the latter, and he was the oldest player on Team Canada during a successful victory at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
As a result of recording more than 90 assists in his first two seasons with the Sharks, Thornton joins Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the only players to achieve that level of consistency as a passer.
Thornton has been a boon to a series of teammates. Jonathan Cheechoo won the Rocket Richard Trophy with “Jumbo” as a linemate, and later Dany Heatley thrived playing on a line with Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
Thornton also has 382 goals, and his 1,382 points in 1,432 regular-season games is testament to his consistency as an offensive force.
The one thing that has eluded him has been the Stanley Cup. The Sharks advanced to the Cup finals last year, only to lose to Pittsburgh, but Thornton, a sure Hall of Famer after his playing days, is still without that valued Cup win.
For now, though, Thornton can enjoy the moment as one of the greatest passers in the game’s history, reaching a milestone that is more exclusive than the 500-goal club and the 1,000-point club.