Joe Thornton, Last Player to Play in the 20th Century, Announces Retirement From NHL

The last NHL player to have played in the 20th century is hanging up the laces.

Longtime San Jose Sharks playmaker and 2006 Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton has confirmed his retirement from professional hockey, per a video release from the San Jose Sharks. He last played in the 2021-22 season with the Florida Panthers, as he did not suit up for the 2022-23 season.

While Thornton only won two major trophies throughout his NHL career, those two being the Hart and the Art Ross Trophy in 2006, and never hoisted a Stanley Cup, he is still widely regarded as one of the best playmakers of his generation.

Thornton’s Early Years in the NHL

Thornton was the clear-cut first overall pick in 1997 with the Boston Bruins, coming off an electric season with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, racking up 41 goals and 81 assists in 122 points in just 59 games. But in his first year with the Bruins, he averaged just 8:05 of ice time under head coach Pat Burns, and it didn’t look like he would develop into the elite playmaker he ended up being.

Steadily, he would improve over the years, until his first breakout season in 2000-01, where he had a career-high 37 goals and 34 assists for 71 points in 72 games, and would go around, and usually above, the point-per-game mark in the next 15+ years. He was then named the Bruins’ captain in 2002-03, succeeding Jason Allison, and Thornton’s playmaking would exponentially improve, with 65 assists that year and cracking the 100-point plateau for the first time.

While the Bruins lost back-to-back first round series to the New Jersey Devils and Montreal Canadiens, the latter on a blown 3-1 series lead, before the 2004-05 lockout, Thornton would not lose an entire ice hockey season as he played with HC Davos in the Swiss National League, scoring 54 points (44 of them being assists) in 40 games. That formed a relationship between him and the Swiss team as he played for them during the 2012-13 lockout and briefly during the 2020-21 COVID pause.

From the East Coast to the West Coast

When NHL action resumed in 2005-06, Thornton had an outstanding start to the regular season, where he had an assist per game in 23 matches with the Bruins. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make up for the bad defense of that Bruins team, and he was dealt to the San Jose Sharks on November 30, 2005, for a three-player haul of scoring winger Marco Sturm, top-four defenseman Brad Stuart, and physical center Wayne Primeau.

On his new team, Thornton continued his heroics as he posted 20 goals and an outstanding 72 assists for 92 points in 58 games, getting Jonathan Cheechoo to one of the most unlikely goal-scoring titles in NHL history, where he had 56 goals in 82 games, a surprise given Cheechoo was out of the NHL entirely by the time he turned 30. Thornton, during the ’06 season, finished with 96 assists in 125 points in 81 games.

He continued his playmaking prowess the following year as he finished with 92 assists in 114 points. He remained at over a point per game pace for the next three seasons as league-wide scoring was slowly declining, and a Sharks team that has been getting deeper shortened his minutes slightly. He was named captain of the team in 2010-11, though a core of him, Patrick Marleau, Marc-Édouard Vlasic, Joe Pavelski, and Brent Burns in their primes couldn’t get them to a Stanley Cup.

They were two games away from the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2016, when Thornton hit the point-per-game mark for the first time in six years and dominated possession metrics, finishing in the top five in both Hart Trophy and Selke Trophy voting. But they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the end. They would get close to a Stanley Cup again in 2019, this time being six games away, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final in six games.

Later Years

After he signed three straight one-year deals to remain a Shark, Thornton left the team in 2020 to pursue a Stanley Cup with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Now that he was 41 by that point, his best days were clearly behind him, but still managed to add depth production with 20 points in 44 games, but had just one goal in seven games as the Leafs blew a 3-1 series lead to their Original Six rival Montreal Canadiens.

His last NHL contract was a one-year deal with the Panthers in 2021-22, but he was playing on an increasingly limited role, averaging a tad of just over 11 minutes per game, playing in just 34 of 82 games, and had 10 points. Even when the Panthers got swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, it was clear that Thornton played his last game in the NHL.

It’s rare for a player that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in his career and only won two major trophies to not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but in Thornton’s case, it’s hard for that to not happen when he is first eligible in 2025. He finishes his career with 1,714 games played (6th all-time in the NHL), 1,109 assists (7th all-time), and 1,539 points (12th all-time), giving him a legitimate argument for one of the top 40 skaters to have ever played in the NHL.

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