- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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Statistically, that notion obviously is a stretch. But Thornton wore the black-and-gold sweater with honor and respect. For seven seasons, he was a force both on and off the ice and was a major contributor when the Bruins erased a 39-year drought and won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
He bled for his teammates. He protected his teammates. He suffered concussions for his teammates. He served a lengthy 15-game suspension for his teammates. His impact in the locker room, on the ice and more importantly in the community deserves to be recognized as that of a true Bruins great.
When the Bruins' season ended prematurely with a loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Thornton knew his career in Boston could be coming to an end. The 36-year-old free agent told his friends and family it was a "coin flip" whether the Bruins would re-sign him.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli met with Thornton at 2 p.m. Monday and told him the team's plans moving forward didn't include him. Thornton admitted he wasn't surprised by the news, but knowing the decision this early in the offseason gives him a better opportunity to land a job with another organization.
Thornton has made Boston his permanent home for his family and that won't change. But the Bruins will miss his presence.
"It was seven amazing years," Thornton said. "I've been asked for my favorite memory and I don't know because the whole thing has been an amazing experience. To do my job in this city for seven years has been incredible. Unfortunately, it's sad to move on but it's part of the business. The Bruins have been nothing but first class treating me unbelievable and I'm very thankful for the opportunity."
Prior to signing in Boston as a free agent on July 1, 2007, Thornton spoke with Neely, who at the time was on the verge of returning to the organization as the team's vice president. Thornton recalls No. 8 telling him how much he would love to play in this city.
"From then until now, everything has been an amazing experience," Thornton said.
Off the ice, Thornton has become a strong advocate for local charities. He has his own charity and donates his time and money to plenty of other charities as well. Even though he will play elsewhere next season, his charity will remain based in Boston.
"Hockey is hockey and I want to be remembered for that, but I also want to be remembered for the stuff I did away from the rink," Thornton said. "That means more to me and I've learned from the guys who were here and stayed around -- Bobby and Terry -- and they're remembered for giving back to the community as much as possible, and I tried to do that as much as I could.
"I've gotten to know a lot of great people around the city and I've had a lot of great people help me out charitywise and businesswise," he said. "It's been special and I want to make sure that doesn't go away.
"We're going to try to give back as much as possible. I love the charity stuff and giving back. It's a great town and I've been fortunate to be a part of it."
When Chiarelli held his season-ending news conference, he was asked about Thornton's future with the Bruins. The GM said the game is trending away from fisticuffs and he needed a few weeks to make a decision on the veteran pugilist.
On Monday, Thornton learned his playing career in Boston was over.
"I talked to my agent after I talked to Peter and we'll see what the interest is. Hopefully there's a lot," Thornton said. "It's sad to leave but I'm excited to see what comes next."
There will be plenty of teams that would want a two-time Stanley Cup champion who has played in the finals a total of three times. There's no question he can still produce and he's never been a liability on the ice. He has a strong hockey sense and always does the right thing with the puck. He's a true leader, and wherever he lands that team will be better with him aboard.
Even at 36, Thornton says he still has some gas left in the tank.
"I don't want people to start thinking, 'Oh, he's done with the Bruins, he must be done playing.' I feel better going into this offseason than I have the last couple of years. I don't feel any different than I did five or six years ago."
Some might think Thornton's 15-game suspension for his incident with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik could have had an impact on Chiarelli's decision not to re-sign him. In December, Thornton slew-footed Orpik to the ice and punched him twice in the head. Thornton said that never came up in his sitdown with Chiarelli on Monday.
"We didn't talk about it," Thornton said. "I stepped over the line with [Orpik] but at the end of the day I was sticking up for my teammate, which is my job. I don't think it was right what I did but I have a job to do."
No. 22 may never hang from the rafters at TD Garden, but Thornton will always hold a special place in the hearts of Bruins fans.
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