When Bruins president Cam Neely called Shawn Thornton seven years ago to try to sell him on Boston, the forward had been in the city maybe once. He had never played at the Garden. He didn’t know much.
He certainly couldn’t have anticipated a seven-year tenure that brought him his second Stanley Cup (after winning one with Anaheim) and the first for the Bruins in 39 years.
“The way he explained it probably even understated how it turned out,” Thornton said Monday. “I feel very lucky.”
That tenure ended Monday, though, when general manager Peter Chiarelli called Thornton into his office and let him know around 2 p.m. that the team would not re-sign the 36-year-old unrestricted free agent.
“Today I met with Shawn and we had a good meeting and I informed him we wouldn’t be re-signing him,” Chiarelli said in a video posted to the team’s website. “It was good in the sense that we talked about the time Shawn has spent here.
“He was here from almost the beginning. I told him that he was one of the most significant acquisitions we made because one, for the role that he played, two, for the person that he is, and it was nice to rehash his time. It was sad to tell him that he wasn’t coming back.”
Chiarelli had hinted at the move in his press conference after the Bruins lost to the Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs, saying that the NHL is “trending away from that [fighting] style.” Many teams appear to be cutting ties with enforcers, with a number of them becoming free agents.
Candidates to replace Thornton on the fourth line include Justin Florek, Matt Lindblad, and Craig Cunningham, none of whom are exactly fighters.
Thornton said he believed it was a “coin flip” whether he would be returning, so he was prepared either way.
“I think, as always, it was very classy of Peter to bring me in, tell me face-to-face, give me a heads up, and not let me sit in limbo,” he said. “So it was a good conversation. Obviously sad to leave Boston, but excited to see what’s next.”
Of his time in Boston, Thornton said, “It was amazing. The last seven years, I’m very thankful and fortunate that the Bruins gave me an opportunity to be here for seven years and do my job here for seven years.
“Along the way, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the city, in the area, in the organization — it was a great, great experience. I’m very thankful for it.
“I think from the start, Day One when Cam called me to tell me that he thought Boston would be a good fit, from that to winning the Cup, everything’s been amazing. So I’m very fortunate. It was first class all the way.”
Thornton played 480 games for the Bruins over those seven years, starting in 2007-08, scoring 34 goals and adding 42 assists for 76 points with 748 penalty minutes. He also played in 86 playoff games, with one goal, six assists, and 62 penalty minutes.
He had 104 fights in the regular season and postseason and six in the preseason, and provided crucial leadership in the dressing room for a team that made the playoffs in each of those seasons.
“He was able to form one-third of maybe the best fourth line in hockey for the longest time,” Chiarelli said. “And of course there was the pugilistic component of his game, which was an important part.
“He was very good about that. It was a job that not a lot of people like to do, but it was a job that was important. He came and he thrived.”
But this season was more of a struggle for Thornton, who missed 15 games because of a suspension handed down by the NHL for a serious incident in December. In a game against Pittsburgh, Thornton punched Brooks Orpik twice while the Penguin was down on the ice, knocking him out, after Orpik had leveled (and concussed) Loui Eriksson.
It was a black mark for a player who had never once been suspended or fined in his NHL career. In the playoffs, he was also fined $2,820.52 for unsportsmanlike conduct in Game 5 against Montreal for spraying P.K. Subban with a water bottle.
Thornton reiterated Monday that he intends to play for at least one more season and “hopefully more.” He had hoped that those years would be with the Bruins — he lives in Boston in the offseason, and intends to continue doing so — but that will not be the case.
“I feel good, I really do,” he said, adding that he feels better this offseason than he did last offseason. “We’ll see what interest is out there. I can bring stuff to the table that some teams might want. I’m hoping that’s the case.”
He will, however, continue to do the community work that has been his hallmark in Boston. His August golf tournament is already sold out and his foundation will continue to use Boston as its home base, including cutting checks this week to local hospitals.
“He’ll be missed,” Chiarelli said. “It’s a bit of a sad day.”