TORONTO (AP) Mario Lemieux was the unofficial greybeard of Team Canada when the last World Cup of Hockey was played 12 years ago.
This time around, the role falls to 37-year-old Joe Thornton, who played alongside Lemieux in 2004 and is being counted on this time for leadership and talent that have withstood the test of time.
Thornton finished fourth in NHL scoring last season, compiling 82 points in 82 games for the San Jose Sharks. He added another 21 points in 24 playoff games, reaching his first-ever Stanley Cup Final.
“Joe Thornton, when you look at his season last year, he’s playing great hockey,” Team Canada general manager Doug Armstrong told the Canadian Press.
Armstrong says Thornton is still one of the best passers in hockey, and indeed his 63 assists last season were only topped by Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson. Thornton is the runaway leader in assists since he entered the league in 1997, 212 ahead of second-place Jaromir Jagr. Thornton also has the most points (1,341) of any player in that span, more than 100 points up on Jagr.
Canada coach Mike Babcock said Thornton’s inclusion on the roster, which came at the initial exclusion of much younger players like Logan Couture, Corey Perry, Ryan O'Reilly and Taylor Hall, was based on merit. His offensive gifts, which have already been apparent in exhibition play, were too much to ignore.
“He obviously was a guy that played well enough and played good enough and was important enough on his team,” Babcock said.
Armstrong was intrigued by how San Jose used Thornton last season, mostly on the wing alongside Joe Pavelski. A plodding skater who didn’t make the 2014 Olympic squad in Sochi, Thornton also seemed a better fit for the NHL-sized rink in Toronto where the World Cup will be played, though Armstrong said his inclusion was based on performance, not the ice surface.
Thornton, who last represented Canada at the 2010 Olympics, hadn’t given much thought to cracking the World Cup roster before getting the invitation this summer.
“It was just one of those things where you just kind of play, don’t think about it and then you get chosen,” said Thornton, still oozing energy even after more than 1,500 NHL games.
It could be the last time he wears red and white on the international stage, though he’s hinted at playing on. He’s already won Olympic (2010) and world junior gold (1997) as well as the crown at that 2004 World Cup, one of two players returning for Team Canada. Jay Bouwmeester is the other.
Thornton recalls that ’04 squad fondly. The group went undefeated (6-0-0) and included Lemieux as well as other future Hall of Famers Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur and Joe Sakic. Thornton, 25 at the time, set up two of three goals in Canada’s 3-2 win over Finland in the final. The Canadians hope he’s still got that magic.
“I’ve still got another 10 years (left),” said a grinning Thornton, “so maybe the next World Cup, I’ll play in it, too.”