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Joe Thornton: a life in memes

Why, cut me a big slice of humble pie. On Monday, Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks will play his first-ever game in a Stanley Cup final. At 36, Joe has turned in a pretty good career: He’s 28th and rising on the NHL’s all-time scoring chart, with a strong case for the Hockey Hall of Fame. The question had always been whether he could get a team this far in the playoffs.

The answer had always been “No, haha.”

On Monday, the answer will be, “You bet your ass.” And if the Sharks win, his Hall of Fame application is sealed.

12 Jan 2016 Sharks Joe Thornton (19) looking to pass the puck during the Winnipeg Jets vs San Jose Sharks game at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg MB. (Photograph by Terry Lee/Icon Sportswire)
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It’s been a long, complex journey for this weirdo from Ontario. He’s become one of the greatest playmakers in history. He’s developed a ferocious two-way game. He’s scored a lot in the playoffs but historically failed in the clutch. He’s old by hockey standards but has managed to remain a top-shelf player even as the game has evolved.

Oh, and did I mention he’s a goofball and human meme machine? Let’s just ignore all the serious hockey stuff. Check out these memes, and you’ll know what you need to know about the Bearded Maestro of San Jo’.

Sliding Joe

One of the great things about Joe — infuriating in the bad times, but pretty awesome in hindsight — is the joy he takes in hockey. (When your team doesn’t win a lot, you take pleasure in the small things.)

In 2011, the Sharks met the L.A. Kings in the first round. The Kings weren’t a thing yet, but you could see the promise of their style: aggressive, defensive, clutch. Still, it wasn’t their time yet, and Joe took the opportunity to show L.A. who their daddy was. He eliminated them in Game 6 overtime:

Immortality, baby:

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Joe Johnson

By 2013, the Sharks had cemented their reputations as playoff chokers. The best was yet to come, but Joe didn’t show any bitterness — actually, he seemed as goofy as ever.

That year, he had a rookie Tomas Hertl on his wing. The kid went on a tear, at one point scoring four goals in a game — including a between-the-legs shot!

Oh. Oh my.

Well, you don’t do that in hockey — it’s showboating. And against the Rangers? I’m clutching my pearls.

In the locker-room scrum after the game, a reporter asked about the play. Joe overheard the question and cracked,

“Shut up, have you ever played the game? I’d have my cock out if I scored four goals. I’d have my cock out, stroking it.”

Reporters ignore a lot of what’s said in the locker room; it’s an unspoken rule. But c’mon. This is gold.

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Give Joe the Puck
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Joe gets aroused by hockey. Facts.

Saddest Joe

The Sharks’ franchise low came in 2014, when they became the fourth team in NHL history to lose a series after being up 3-0. It was, of course, to the Kings. It had to be.

The loss seemed to summarize a decade of failure in San Jose. It showed that Joe and the team’s other stars couldn’t get it done in the clutch, whether that meant scoring a key goal or holding onto a damn lead. It showed that the team’s philosophy, built around a few stars and a raggedy support scheme, wasn’t going to work.

In brief,

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When you face an organizational trauma like that, heads have to roll, it’s just a question of who. Joe was a key candidate, as were all the other star players. The coach and the GM were quite eligible.

There was plenty of blame to go around, and the bitterness had people burning bridges.

GM Doug Wilson made some mildly critical comments about Joe. Joe snapped,

“I think Doug just needs to shut his mouth. I think that’s the bottom line…All I’ve got to say is I’ve been here every day working hard. I haven’t taken a sabbatical. He just needs to stop lying, shut his mouth.”

What gleeful, tabloid stuff. It felt like a Shakespearean tragedy entering its blood-soaked Act V.

But wait.

James Harden Joe

At some point this year, Joe got to that magic mid-30s place where he suddenly had no more fucks to give. The Sharks? They had the same GM, a new coach, and a few personnel tweaks. They were rated a middling team in a stacked Western Conference. Dude had nothing to play for but his dignity.

And his facial bush showed it. The thing was just kooky at first, an unkempt, shaggadocious mass with a blast of grey down the middle. And in a sport where playoff beards are a thing, it looked presumptuous — it’s January, your team has never won anything, and you’re out here looking like a Chow Chow? Whatever, the Western Conference said.

Then, at 36, Joe turned in one of the great regular seasons of his career. He finished fourth in league scoring and second in assists. He was also +25 — a testament to how this offensive force has rounded out his game as a defensive forward.

And now, he’s centering the best line of the playoffs. On his left wing is Hertl, cradling the rooster. On the other wing is Joe Pavelski, the stumpy chap from Plover, Wisconsin who’s got 13 playoff goals, leading the league and making Canadian commentators wonder if Yankees can play the game too. Joe the Chow Chow is second in assists and dropping dimes like it’s 2006:

Yeah, I’m eatin’ some humble pie. I’m not one of those people who just knew Joe had it in him all this time — certainly not at age 36. I was one of the guys who, in 2014, said he had to go.

But Joe did something most people never do: He changed. He grew. He chose to be less terrier, more Chow Chow. With a real team around him — scoring, deep defense, and an actual NHL goalie — the Chow Chow’s doing some damage.

Kudos to you, Joe. Win that Cup. Let your rooster loose.

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