The Hall of Fame quarterback could relate to what the 41-year-old center was going through. Some 27 years earlier, Montana, then 36, was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs by the San Francisco 49ers on April 21, 1993, as per his request, after establishing a legacy in San Francisco that included 13 seasons and four Super Bowl titles.
Thornton, like Montana before him, has been a sporting icon in the Bay Area, playing the past 15 seasons with the San Jose Sharks, until he signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with Toronto.
“Joe gave me some good advice,” Thornton said Sunday. “He just talked about leaving San Francisco and going to Kansas City.
“That conversation meant a lot. I had so many people I talked to over the last week. I’m just blessed that I had a chance to talk to some great people. But [Montana’s] one guy that offered me some good advice.”
Thornton is seeking his first championship and said he believes his best chance to achieve that goal is with the Maple Leafs.
“I need to win a Stanley Cup, and I think this is a great team that can do that,” Thornton said. “It was probably the hardest hockey decision I’ve ever had to make, but I truly believe Toronto, with the roster they have with the guys they picked up this offseason, I think this team is ready to win now. I’m ready to win.”
Thornton scored 1,055 regular-season points with the Sharks from 2005-2020, second most in Sharks history behind Patrick Marleau‘s 1,102. His 1,104 games are second to Marleau’s 1,551, and he leads them in assists (804) and rating (plus-161).
Yet he still is missing that elusive NHL title.
The Sharks got close in 2015-16, reaching the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. But last season, San Jose (29-36-4, .450 points percentage) finished last in the Western Conference, missing the postseason for the second time in 16 seasons.
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said Sunday he tried to trade Thornton to a contender before the NHL Trade Deadline last season but couldn’t find the right fit. He said he understands why Thornton views the Maple Leafs as a good landing spot.
“I think they had a better year than we did last year,” Wilson said. “We have to reestablish our game and we’ve got to get our best players back healthy.”
Although the Maple Leafs have a talented core with forwards Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, defenseman Morgan Rielly, and goalie Frederik Andersen, they have not won a Stanley Cup Playoff series since 2004. Nevertheless, Thornton said he knows the talent on the Maple Leafs roster and said he feels he can help push them over the hump.
So does Toronto GM Kyle Dubas, who said he sees Thornton helping on the power play and in the locker room.
In 2017, when Dubas was an assistant to then-GM Lou Lamoriello, the Maple Leafs made a significant push to sign Thornton, who was a free agent but re-signed with the Sharks.
“I gave it a long, hard thought,” Thornton said. “And it just didn’t work out back then. And now I honestly just felt like it was a great move for the family. It’s going to be an easy transition for my kids, for my wife.
“It just honestly felt like the right time to make the move and I’m just super excited.”
Dubas’ admiration for Thornton dates to growing up in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, when he and his minor hockey league teammates would go watch the gangly teenager play for the Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League from 1995-97. Dubas became a stick boy with the team the following season.
Asked if he remembered Dubas from his junior hockey days, Thornton laughed.
“To be honest, I can’t remember what happened two weeks ago,” Thornton said.
“He was just a dominant player. And even as a 16-year-old, as dominant as he was skill-wise and with his size, he was also one of the tougher players that had come into the program,” Dubas said. “And I think the combination of all those things, certainly in Sault Ste. Marie, makes you revered forever.
“Obviously, he’s gone on to be one of the most revered players in the history of the franchise.”
Much the same way he was in San Jose.
But now it’s time to work on a new legacy in Toronto. With Dubas, coach Sheldon Keefe and several players reaching out the past week, Thornton said he already feels welcome. Forward Jason Spezza contacted Thornton after the signing and offered to give up his No. 19, Thornton’s longtime number, to the newcomer.
“Nice gesture, but no way. That’s his,” said Thornton, who’ll wear No. 97.
By coming to the Maple Leafs, Thornton returns to his southern Ontario roots. He was born in London, Ontario, and grew up in St. Thomas, 125 miles southwest of Toronto. His parents, Wayne and Mary, still live in the community, where the local arena is called the Joe Thornton Community Center and where Joe owns a farm about eight miles outside of town.
“Obviously my parents are [near] so that was part of [the decision]. They can be around the grandkids a lot,” he said.
In the end, however, the deciding factor was the talent on the Maple Leafs roster.
“It was a little bit family but mostly hockey,” Thornton said.
And a chance to finish his career with a Stanley Cup championship.