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ON HOCKEY

It's time for Thornton to get hook as captain

For the good of his team, Joe Thornton should surrender his "C" this morning as the Bruins captain. Truth is, the club's 24-year-old franchise player took one giant and curious step toward abdicating the prestigious position at 1:32 p.m. yesterday when he slinked out the back door of the club's dressing room to avoid addressing the media. While some 30 reporters, cameramen, and videographers awaited his thoughts and words, Thornton exited stage left, with less than 36 hours to go before his Bruins face the Canadiens tonight at the FleetCenter in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.

For the record, Thornton was well aware of the media's presence, no fewer than two club employees underscoring the obvious to him: It's important for the media -- and, by extension, untold thousands of fans and maybe even the odd corporate sponsor or two -- to hear what he had to say.

Thornton's response: a quick pivot out the back door.

One out-of-town TV reporter crossed his path in the hallway, requested a comment, and later said that Thornton's only response was, "I'll talk tomorrow."

Good guy, Thornton, but who cares? Not the point here. The world's full of good guys, and none of them should be captain of the Bruins, either. The fact that he is usually affable and gregarious, as well as talented and still very young, does not matter one whit when the team that has entrusted him with that "C" relies on him to view the world through that "C" and not his own "I."

Thornton had to say something. Not much, but something. By passing on his shot, his silence spoke volumes about his suitability for the job.

A veteran Montreal print reporter, his mouth agape at Thornton's vanishing act, turned to a Boston acquaintance in the dressing room and said, "In Montreal, if [Habs captain] Saku Koivu ever did that, we would kick his ass down St. Catherine's Steet!" He could have added: "And back -- or at least until the posse arrived."

A stand-up captain (Ray Bourque come to mind?) would have sauntered into the cordial horde and spoken of many things. For starters, Thornton could have noted how disappointing his own play has been thus far in the series (he has gone 0-0--0 in six games, and in Game 6 notched a dastardly minus-3). As follow-ups, he could have reached for the trusty bucket of cliches -- iced down, of course, so they wouldn't bounce -- about the need to dig down deeper, play with pride, crash the net, whistle Dixie, whatever.

Bourque was never great copy, but he was the ultimate ambassador, which said great things about him and about his team. The only time Bourque ever blew off the media came in the hours leading up to his trade to Colorado. Not knowing how his life's work and allegiance were about to play out, the dignified, respectful captain hustled past a small group of reporters and said, "Sorry, guys, no story." The media granted him that mulligan.

Actually, the call here now for Thornton to do the right thing, surrender that weighty "C," has only a little to do with snubbing the media. Heck, in this town, there are those out there who would consider media dissing as grounds to make Thornton the new general manager.

In the two years that he has worn that "C," Thornton clearly has grown less and less comfortable with the consonant. There have been many games and practices in the past two years in which he has deliberately chosen, like yesterday, not to make himself available to the media. During these playoffs, he has been barely more visible to the media than he has been on the ice, which is another way of defining a glaring absence.

Thornton spoke following Saturday night's disaster in Montreal, but it was brief -- in part because the club was hustling to make a charter flight. But what he had to say was fine. A little bit of captain-speak goes a long way. No one expects Chaucer. Thornton isn't one to call attention to himself during such gigs, anyway, and there is no disputing that the world would be a far better place if more of us boasted a few extra ounces of his kind of humility.

But there comes the time to talk, for every captain, and yesterday was Thornton's time. Game 7 vs. the hated Habs requires a word or two from the captain. Thornton let down the media, his fans, his employers, himself, and that long line of Boston captains before him, dating back to Lionel Hitchman. The "C" still counts in hockey, even if Thornton doesn't believe that. His actions say he doesn't care about tradition, his "C" status, his place in time.

Every other member of the Bruins could have walked down that hallway yesterday, and though it might not have been respectful, it certainly wouldn't have been news. Again, for the record, your faithful correspondent had conversations outside the dressing room doors with the likes of Andrew Raycroft, Glen Murray, and Michael Nylander. All were accommodating. None appeared to have sustained injury in the process. A great number of reporters "worked the hallway" outside the dressing room, and by unofficial tally, no one was stiffed by any of Thornton's teammates.

Inside the dressing room, while Thornton was hatching his escape plot (go long, hook a left at the Caddy, and thread the needle by the Blazer), many of his teammates fulfilled their obligatory media duties. Travis Green on the challenged Boston power play: "People think it's easy to score in the playoffs, but it's not. We just get a bounce or two to go the right way, and then people think you've got five Mario Lemieuxs out there." Heck, one Charlie Simmer would be OK right now.

Indeed, these are challenging times for the Bruins. It could be that none of them ever again will play in a Game 7. For perhaps one or two, if the Bruins lose tonight, their NHL careers will be done. Others, no doubt, will exit via free agency, and still others will be traded. If we are about to witness a third straight one-and-done conclusion to the postseason, it doesn't take much of a leap to envision even Thornton being dealt. Lose tonight, and all bets are off, after management went out and juiced up the lineup with the likes of Sergei Gonchar and Nylander. These kicks to the teeth are getting a bit redundant, no?

More than any other time in the post-Bourque era, the Bruins need real on-the-ice and in-the-room leadership. It's the ice part of that equation that means the most, of course, and Thornton has been a profound disappointment there thus far. His struggles led to a Saturday headline in the Montreal Gazette that read: "Thornton MVP: for the Habs." Tough town. But as one former Bruins player noted in the days since that headline, someone should have stuck the Gazette in Thornton's locker. In fact, said the same ex-Bruin, teammates of years past would have rushed to the arena early, just to be the first to put it in the captain's locker. No one like an ex-player to know the motivation to be found in a headline.

Thornton is an elite NHLer, big and strong and skilled. For the most part, he has lived up to Harry Sinden's initial assessment: a hybrid of Eric Lindros and Mike Modano. But just as the best players don't often make the best coaches, Thornton is an odd, seemingly reluctant fit in that special "C" sweater. If he really wanted to wear it, if he felt the need and the desire and the responsibility, he would have lived up to all its conditions and mystique for one very important minute yesterday.

But that time passed, and now, so has Thornton's.

Give it up, Joe, this morning, and go out there tonight and play the game of your career. Unburdened by it all. For the good of the team, for your good, and for a fandom that expects and deserves the best from the best.

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