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Joe cool on West Coast

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Life is good now for Joe Thornton. He has settled into a sun-splashed home in Silicon Valley. His Swiss girlfriend has navigated her way to San Jose. His new bosses, unlike the old ones, love the way he plays hockey. He is reunited with his cousin, Scott Thornton, and former Bruins teammate Kyle McLaren. And he is contemplating a new leisure activity.

''Last year, I skied," Thornton said, recalling his winter in Switzerland during the NHL lockout. ''This year, I may learn how to surf."

Forty days after Boston's best hockey player since Ray Bourque was sent westward in a blockbuster trade for three Sharks, Thornton's shock and pain have dissipated, even as his most bitter memories endure. All in all, the former Bruins captain, who will return to Causeway Street Tuesday for the first time since his stunning exile, feels the Bruins dropped him atop the perfect wave.

''It's an exciting time in my life," he said. ''I thought I was going to be a Bruin my whole career, so it was really tough to leave. But you just have to pick up and move on, and I've done that. It's working out so far."

Indeed, Thornton, 26, the franchise player whose legacy in Boston may be that he either underachieved or was underappreciated during his seven-plus seasons, entered last night leading the league in assists while making a strong bid for the scoring title and reviving the once-wheezing Sharks.

''We've scored a lot more goals since Joe has come on board," Sharks coach Ron Wilson said, even before Thornton racked up a goal and four assists Thursday in a 6-3 victory over Columbus. ''I'm sure we're going to score a lot more, too."

Thornton, who signed a three-year, $20 million contract with the Bruins before the season, vented his disdain for the team's management soon after the trade. He suggested that Bruins executives scapegoated him for their shortcomings. He said his relationship with the front office never was right from the start. And he blamed club officials for not publicly standing behind their players in times of trouble.

Thornton's supporters believe Bruins executives never adequately defended him when the Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont called on him to surrender his captaincy before Game 7 of the 2004 playoffs against Montreal. Thornton went scoreless in seven games as the Bruins bowed to the Canadiens, dropping their record in postseason series during his tenure to 1-5.

Only after the series did the Bruins acknowledge that Thornton had played with torn rib cartilage. And team officials further angered Thornton's backers by never aggressively confronting criticism that he failed to meet the expectations he inspired when the Bruins selected him first overall in the 1997 draft.

''He was the captain, so a lot of the blame fell on his shoulders," said McLaren, whom the Bruins traded to the Sharks in 2003 after a contract dispute. ''Whether it was right, I don't think so. In a tough situation, you want your organization to believe in players and stand behind them. I didn't pay attention to everything that happened in Boston, but I read some comments by [Bruins officials] about Joe that I didn't like."

For his part, Thornton has tempered his public response.

''You can't please everybody," he said. ''If you please 70 percent of the people, that's all you can hope for."

He stopped short of renewing his complaints about Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell -- ''Let's not go there," he said -- and instead praised his new GM, Doug Wilson.

Thornton sprang to his own defense only once during the recent interview, when he was asked about criticism that he failed to meet expectations in part because he lacked the necessary intensity every game, every shift.

''I think I lived up to expectations," he said. ''I played my heart out for the Bruins every shift, and that's all you can ask for."

Consummate setup guy
So, were the knocks against Thornton in Boston a question of style rather than substance? Was he destined to fall short of expectations because people wanted him to play as if he were someone else?

Critics complained that the brawny Thornton (6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds) seemed content to serve as a setup man, camping behind the net or along the midboard rather than wading into the action in front of the goal like Hall of Famers Cam Neely and Phil Esposito. Even a couple of Thornton's new teammates cited his apparent preference for setting up goals rather than scoring them.

''He's capable of scoring three goals a night," said Sharks defenseman Jim Fahey, who grew up in Milton, Mass., and played for Catholic Memorial and Northeastern during Thornton's first five years with the Bruins. ''I think that's what people wanted a little more of.

''But, trust me, Joe couldn't give any more effortwise. If people wanted more out of him in Boston, they may have spent the next 50 years trying to find it."

Thornton's teammates credited him with making the players around him better. In basketball terms, said Sharks winger Niko Dimitrakos, who grew up in Somerville, Mass., and played at Matignon and the University of Maine, Thornton may rank as the league's most valuable ''point guard."

Ron Wilson expanded on the analogy.

''Throughout his career, Joe seems to be more of a playmaker," the coach said. ''I look at Joe more or less like being a big center in basketball who likes to take a perimeter shot rather than play under the basket. However you decide to design your offense, it can work either way. Maybe Joe is more like a Vlade Divac, where he wants to take perimeter shots."

That seems to suit Wilson fine.

''I don't understand why you want a guy standing in front of the net who passes as well as Joe Thornton passes," Wilson said. ''How can he make plays if someone is shooting the puck at him? Why wouldn't you want him setting up behind the net or at the midboard and taking advantage of his vision and passing ability? At least that's the way I look at it. Maybe the Bruins needed something else from him."

Fahey is keenly aware of the debate back home over Thornton, who led the Bruins in scoring three times and remains their top scorer this season. Fahey's best friend, Boston Police officer James Stoddard, recently became so irate after hearing a WEEI radio host demean Thornton that he left a lengthy expletive-laced message on Fahey's cellphone. Fahey also knows that some of Thornton's biggest supporters occupy the Bruins locker room.

''Do you think Glen Murray is missing Joe?" Fahey said. ''I'd say so."

Murray scored 12 goals in 22 games as Thornton's linemate before the trade. Since then, Murray has scored twice in 12 games.

By contrast, Murray's counterpart in San Jose, right winger Jonathan Cheechoo, has gone wild thanks to Thornton, scoring 16 goals in 14 games, including a hat trick Thursday. Cheechoo scored only seven goals in 24 games before Thornton arrived.

''There's not a lot of difference between Cheechoo and Murray," Wilson said. ''Cheech is starting to learn where to go with Joe, like Murray did."

Forgiving fans
Thornton, who wasted no time setting a San Jose franchise record by recording six straight multipoint games, has led the Sharks to a 9-5 record since the trade (going into last night), while the Bruins are 8-7 since the shake-up.

''Boston was the only city he knew, so the trade was tough for him," Scott Thornton said. ''But he came in and played great from the first game."

Even if Thornton slumps, he need not brace for a backlash. San Jose fans generally don't unleash much fury when the Sharks go sour.

''There's a lot of pressure and expectations from the fans and the organization in Boston," Dimitrakos said. ''The West Coast is a little more laid-back. We have great fans, but they are a little more forgiving."

In Boston, Thornton bore the burden of history, the pressure of a front office and fandom expecting him to help capture the franchise's first Stanley Cup since 1972. On the day the Bruins made him the top pick, at age 17, in the 1997 draft, they distributed sunglasses at the FleetCenter and proclaimed, ''The future's so bright you gotta wear shades."

But the climate remained cloudy, the criticism of Thornton endured, and his mother, Mary, back home in St. Thomas, Ontario, grew so enraged by the commentary that she publicly wished ill of the families of certain Boston writers.

''I hope someone attacks their kids someday and puts it in the papers," she told Boston magazine in 2002 in a ''voice racked with emotion." (She delivered a similar message in writing to Dupont.)

To this day, Thornton insists the media never rattled him.

''I never read the paper," he said. ''I didn't really know what was going on behind the scenes. I got paid to play hockey, and that's what I did."

Now Thornton plays in a place they call the Shark Tank, a continent removed from the penthouse condo in Park Square he bought in October for $2.75 million and Todd English's Bonfire, his favorite restaurant in the neighborhood. He said he may hang onto the condo for a while as a home for his relatives. And he indicated he may bunk there when he returns in the summer to visit friends.

''I love the city," he said. ''Boston is the first major city I ever lived in. I spent eight great years there and I grew up there. I wouldn't change it for anything."

Since the Bruins changed it for him, Thornton will head in a new direction tomorrow when he reports for practice on Causeway Street.

''It's going to be different going to the visiting locker room," he said. ''It's going to be a change, but it's going to be a good change. I'm very excited."

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