Joe Thornton was flooded with emotions Monday when he looked down at the Toronto Maple Leafs crest on his jersey.
“To put on that Leaf uniform, being from southwestern Ontario and growing up and watching the Leafs — watching Dougie Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats [Sundin] — it is a thrill for me,” the veteran forward said after completing his first day of training camp as a member of the Maple Leafs.
The 41-year-old signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Maple Leafs on Oct. 18 after spending the previous 15 seasons with the San Jose Sharks. He said one of the appealing aspects of making the move was being able to play so close to St. Thomas, the town he grew up in 125 miles southwest of Toronto.
[RELATED: Toronto Maple Leafs season preview]
Less than three months later, he said he feels at home in Toronto with the team he watched as a kid.
“It’s been really easy,” he said. “It’s a super group of guys. Lots of laughter in the room. It’s a really good feeling around here. A lot of positive vibes.”
Even with the pressure of playing in such a hockey-mad city where every shift, every game, every decision is scrutinized?
“I got no stress man. Honestly,” he said before breaking into a huge grin.”
The Maple Leafs were enticed by the playmaking skills of Thornton, who is 14th on the NHL all-time scoring list with 1,509 points (420 goals, 1,089 assists) in 1,636 games, and his focused leadership.
His influence is already noticeable. Just ask Maple Leafs forward William Nylander, who recently quarantined for 14 days prior to training camp in a house with Thornton, forward Auston Matthews, and defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Mac Hollowell.
“He was unbelievable,” Nylander said. “Getting to spend two weeks with a Hall of Famer is pretty special. You get to know him as a professional. He’s an unbelievable guy and he works hard every day.”
Monday was no different. Coach Sheldon Keefe skated his team hard and did not allow them to touch a puck for the first 20 minutes of practice. Afterward he praised Thornton for being the consummate professional, all the while wearing his trademark grin.
“It was a really difficult for our guys at training camp, we demanded a lot of our group,” Keefe said. “Joe worked extremely hard, pushed himself extremely hard on the ice. On the ice, still maintained his smile. Off the ice he was still smiling, happy and excited for the next day.
“We really think that brings a lot of value to our team and we saw a lot of benefits from that today.”
Keefe said the idea of moving Thornton from his natural center position to left wing on a line with Matthews and Mitchell Marner first came to him when Thornton began showing interest in joining the Maple Leafs. Thornton had been playing left wing for HC Davos of the Swiss National League last fall.
Los Angeles Kings coach Todd McLellan, who coached Thornton from 2008-15 with the Sharks, said he’ll be an outstanding mentor for Matthews and Marner.
“I think it’s great. It’s great for those two kids to have Jumbo on their line. He’s such a good player, he’s going to be so good for those young players, and he’s going to drive them.
“He’ll make those two better as overall players. Jumbo will have fun doing that, and they’ll enjoy having him there.”
— NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers contributed to this report / Photo Credit: @MapleLeafs