- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Shawn Thornton is always paying attention.
The Boston Bruins' veteran leader closely observes what happens on the ice, and what occurs off of it, too. Similarly, he protects his teammates on and off the ice, and he's not afraid to speak his mind. Thornton's personality, hockey skills and community presence never have been overlooked in his time in Boston.
But something is different as he enters his sixth season in black and gold. It has nothing to do with the lockout, or the shortened 48-game schedule that begins on Saturday when the Bruins host the New York Rangers at 7 p.m., at TD Garden. For the first time in his NHL career, Thornton is considered one of the patriarchs of his team.
"We'll not bring up how old I am," Thornton said with a smile after Monday's practice at Ristuccia Arena.
Since Tim Thomas decided not to play this season, Thornton and teammate Zdeno Chara share the title of elder statesmen on the Bruins. They're both 35, but Chara turns 36 on March 18, while Thornton's birthday is July 23.
Thornton considers age only a number. The fact that he continues to be a reliable force on the ice is impressive given his role as an enforcer. Leadership is something that has always come naturally to him, so it doesn't matter that he's now one of the oldest players on the team.
"I was the captain on pretty much every team I played on in the minors and I try to take pride in being a good guy in the room, and trying to be a leader," Thornton said. "I don't think this year is any different than in years past.
"We've always had a lot of good leaders here. It hasn't changed. I don't think I'm any different now than I was six years ago when I got here. Z's probably not any different, or Andy [Ference]. We've seen guys like [Milan] Lucic grow into that role a little bit too."
Chara is the captain. Patrice Bergeron is the assistant captain. Last season, both Ference and Chris Kelly shared the other 'A' during home and road games. Thornton deserves to wear a letter on his sweater, but he doesn't need an 'A' to get respect from his teammates and opponents.
"Even though he doesn't wear a letter, he's definitely one of the biggest leaders on our team," Tyler Seguin said.
When asked if he thought Thornton should be named assistant captain, Seguin said with a smile, "No. Just because he would talk about it all the time and I think he's fine right where he is without the letter. Everyone knows he's the first guy to defend you on the ice and the first guy to defend you off the ice."
When the Bruins selected Seguin as the No. 2 pick in the 2010 NHL draft, he came to Boston with plenty of hoopla. He was only 18 and he quickly learned about the veteran leadership on the Bruins, including Thornton.
"I like to say he's the first guy to make fun of you, or chirp at you, or bring you down to earth," Seguin said. "And he'll be the first guy to pick you up from jail. He's that type of character and he keeps everyone grounded. He's just always there, whatever you need. He's very good at giving advice on certain things.
"We have good leadership on our team and Thorty's one of those guys who always seems to be talking about everyone else and not himself. He's always pumping everyone else up. He's an all-around good guy and leader."
It also doesn't matter that he has 772 penalty minutes in 450 regular-season games. If you're not respecting the game, your teammates or the fans, it won't take much for Thornton to get his Irish up and speak his mind.
"I kind of let guys do their own thing," Thornton said. "If something happens that is maybe a little bit out of line, I have no problem voicing my opinion on the matter. I try to steer a guy in the right direction.
"I'm the first to admit that I'm probably a little harder on guys when I do that than I should be. I like to chirp as much as sitting somebody down, unless it's really serious. Our room is really good keeping anyone in check if anyone gets outside our system, and they'll jump all over them and bring them back down to earth."
There have been times during the previous two postseasons when Bruins coach Claude Julien pulled Thornton from the lineup due to "necessity" but not because of his play. It was a difficult choice for Julien to make in both instances, a decision that probably didn't go over well with Thornton, but he never complained because he knew his presence off the ice was important, too.
"He's got a lot of experience. He obviously brings the grit, but also the leadership on and off the ice," Bergeron said. "He's always going to be there for his teammates and will always step up for his teammates on the ice. He means a lot and we saw it in the playoffs two years ago."
He's a native of Oshawa, Ontario, but Boston has become home for Thornton. He lives year-round in Charlestown. He's become a community leader and gives selflessly to many charitable endeavors. Before signing with the Bruins prior to the 2007-08 season, Thornton already had played in Chicago and Anaheim. But it didn't take him long to realize Boston was home.
Asked why he enjoys Boston so much, Thornton said, "Being here in the summer and really seeing what the city has to offer when the weather's nice. Being here in the offseason my first couple of years, and being able to take in the city with Fenway Park, the golf and the people."
Thornton has become close friends with other pro athletes in Boston, including the Red Sox's David Ortiz, former Red Sox and current Yankee Kevin Youkilis and Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski. Like many of his friends, Thornton has become part of the legendary sports landscape here.
"I embrace it. I like it," he said. "I like being part of this city and I'm trying to give back as much as I can."
Thornton already has helped deliver a Stanley Cup title to Boston and he's hoping for another.