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Shawn Thornton believes there's still a place for fighting in NHL

Ty Anderson
August 15, 2017 - 12:04 pm

Shawn Thornton’s hands, mangled from years in the NHL as one of the game’s top enforcers, a role he held with the Bruins from 2007 to 2014, tell you his story.

“When I came into the league I was taught there’s like three reasons for you to fight: First and foremost, to stick up for your teammate. Secondly would be to stick up for yourself if need be, and third would be to change the momentum,” Thornton, who presented a $25,000 check to the 2017 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radio-Telethon on behalf of the Shawn Thornton Foundation, told WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria of fighting in the NHL. “Usually it was to put out a fire, hopefully, if the games were getting tense, if I went out and fought somebody, everything just kind of settled down a little bit.”

It’s a role that Thornton still thinks needs to be played, even as the NHL continues to shift towards speed and skill. Or perhaps especially with that shift towards speed.

“Fighting gets blamed for a lot of the stuff that’s happening, but I don’t think that’s the problem,” Thornton, whose 748 penalty minutes during his time in Boston rank as the 19th-most in franchise history, said. “I just think the game is so quick, and the equipment is so amazing now that people are just running into each other at very high speeds.

“I really think that the equipment is so good now that people aren’t afraid to launch themselves into each other at 35 miles per hour,” offered the recently retired Thornton. “If you had the shoulder pads that I wore or some of the old school guys [wore], and you’re worried about your shoulder being separated every time you went through somebody, then I don’t think we’d have as many injuries as we do.”

But speed is not going away, especially with this new crop of skilled players that can go end-to-end in just a few strides and mere seconds, and it’s no secret that roles like the one Thornton played throughout his NHL career -- be it as either an enforcer or as a veteran fourth-liner -- have trended towards the way of the dinosaur in recent years.

“I could sit here for hours if we had it and tell you my thoughts on how the game’s going. I think some of it’s great, I think some of it’s not great,” said Thornton. “There’s a lot of emphasis on young skill. You have to get guys on entry-level contracts that can produce, with the cap situation, those guys are getting tons of opportunities where 10 or 12 years ago the fourth line would have been veteran guys that were relied upon and maybe coaches liked them because they didn’t make mistakes.”

But as long as it’s done effectively with the proper balance and players, there’s still a need for team toughness and an enforcer (like the Bruins had in Thornton back in 2011 when they won the Stanley Cup), according to the 40-year-old Thornton.

“There’s people on both sides that argue it, and we can argue for weeks. But I know for a fact that people have told me that I’ve played against that ‘I didn’t run around last night because you told me you would kill me,’” Thornton revealed. “Intimidation is still a part of life, it’s still definitely still part of the game of hockey. I’ve had this conversation with general managers, it’s not out yet. You look at the Edmonton Oilers, and they probably have one of the most talented young teams in the league, but they’re also the toughest team in the league, and I think that’s part of the reason why they had some success.”

And even as Thornton begins the next chapter of his professional career -- Thornton turned down a role with NESN’s Bruins broadcast team to accept a role as the vice president of business operations with the Panthers -- Thornton’s love for Boston remains.

“It was actually humbling how well I was treated when I was here,” said Thornton. “I threw myself in the community, I stayed here in the offseason, that probably helped — and the fact that I got punched in the head for a living, everybody in Boston enjoys those personalities throughout the ages. This still feels like home. I miss it.”