- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- It never gets old when Joe Thornton returns to the city that once could have been his to dominate as a sports figure.
Long before Tom Brady helped the Patriots win a string of Super Bowls and became an icon in New England, Thornton was anointed the future savior of the Boston Bruins when the organization selected him as the top pick in 1997.
He had the talent. He had the personality. But he never reached his iconic potential in Boston, especially when his game seemed to disappear in the playoffs and the Stanley Cup was never hoisted during his eight seasons in Boston.
He didn't have that typical Big, Bad Bruins persona, but he impressed a lot of people when he played through a severe and agonizing rib injury during the 2003-04 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens.
After gaining a 3-1 series lead on the Canadiens, the Bruins imploded and lost in seven games. Thornton failed to register a point.
Then, of course, came The Trade on Nov. 30, 2005.
The following morning after news broke of the trade, Bruins players were livid with the organization for dealing Thornton. In fact, one player (no longer with the team) made a comment that Boston received "three guys who couldn't tie their skates" in return for Thornton's services.
Thornton wasn't gone long before he returned to Boston to face the Bruins as an opponent. His return on Jan. 10, 2006, however, also didn't last long. During his second shift, he was ejected for an illegal hit from behind on former teammate Hal Gill. Thornton played only 2:31.
Even though there have been many changes in the Bruins' organization since Thornton was traded, rookie Tyler Seguin has been compared to the former captain because of their respective draft selections.
Thornton was the No. 1 overall pick for Boston in the 1997 NHL entry draft and Seguin was chosen as the No. 2 overall selection by the Bruins last June. Saturday was the first time the two have played against each other.
After San Jose's 2-0 victory at TD Garden, Thornton said he really couldn't comment on Seguin.
"I'm too worried about paying attention to my game, to be honest," Thornton said.
When Thornton arrived in Boston as an 18-year-old rookie, he also dealt with the natural growing pains of the NHL. He's still only 31 years old, but 1997 seems like a generation ago for Thornton.
"What can I say? I had really, really long hair," Thornton said with his usual Jumbo Joe smile. "That was a long time ago. Pat Burns was the coach and he was really tough. He was a really good coach for me. I really don't remember too much from being 18."
Seguin is experiencing a similar transition. If Thornton could give him any advice about playing in the NHL, especially in a market like Boston, it would be plain and simple:
"Trust the coaching staff and work hard every day," Thornton said. "I'm sure he's got some good leaders over there that he can follow. Enjoy it and work hard."
Thornton has been in San Jose almost as long as he played in Boston. He said he enjoys coming back, but it's to a point where a victory over the Bruins in February is more about the two points than anything else.
"It's just a win," he said. "Maybe the first time I was back here, you wanted to win that first one, but now it's any other road game."
Thornton did say he's impressed with the state of the Bruins.
"They're tight," he said. "They're probably one of the most complete teams we've played all year. They're tight defensively. They don't give up too much. They are a pretty darn good team."
He considers himself a true Shark now. There's no looking back and he said he never wonders about the what-ifs.
"Not really," he said. "We really don't like to look back and say, 'What could have happened if I stayed here?' I really loved it here and I still have a lot of family and friends, but I'm a Shark and I like being out there."
It's always good to see him back in Boston.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.
It's always good to see Joe Thornton in Boston, but there's no looking back for the Shark.