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MICHAEL HOLLEY

Retire? Joe says it -- but it isn't so

Did he mean it? Of course not. You're going to have to wait a while before you thank Joe Thornton for the memories, watch him place his No. 19 next to Raymond Bourque's 77, and send him away with tears and goodbyes.

I'm guessing we're at least 10 years away from that.

Igor Larionov still is being paid to skate, and he'll be 43 next month. No one is asking Mark Messier to leave New York, and he's 42. Thornton takes jabs as if he works in a ring rather than a rink, but walking away at 24 would trump Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown by five years.

Who knew Joe was ready for a company watch, a box of inedible chocolates, and a VIP spot in a shuffleboard tournament?

All of this became a topic when excerpts of a Thornton television interview began to trickle into Boston. On Monday, the Bruins captain told Canada's popular TSN that the constant on-the-job punishment -- high-sticking, clutching, grabbing, etc. -- has him frustrated. He said his back is killing him, even though he hasn't missed a practice or game this season. He said he sometimes wonders whether all this abuse is worth it. Put another way, he hinted at retirement.

Most of Thornton's incendiary words were smoothed over by 8:30 last night.

By then, some new guy who keeps popping up all over the place (I think he said his name is Jeremy Jacobs) was laughing off Thornton's words. By then, general manager Mike O'Connell had assured everyone that Thornton does not have back problems. And by then, there was just one man in the FleetCenter who really did want to see Thornton retire: Ty Conklin.

The Edmonton goalie allowed three goals in the second period, with Old Graybeard Joe scoring the second of the three at half past 8. The Bruins rode their second-period surge to a 4-3 victory.

So the scare is over. The Bruins have a good team -- Jacobs called them "great" -- and their fans don't have to worry about the captain walking away from his $5.5 million base salary.

Right?

"I said what I had to say," Thornton said after the game. "I don't regret a thing."

Oh, Joe. You don't want to say that. Thornton, who still has a four-stitch shiner he got from his cousin last week, is angry with the NHL rulebook.

"It's not so much the officials," he explained last night. "It's what the officials are being told to call." He said the beautiful game of hockey is suffering, and he's right. He said it's not what people want to see, and he's right. He said he "didn't like hockey" after the Nov. 1 Pittsburgh game and spoke of retirement, presumably to get more support for his Free Hockey campaign.

He's right and wrong there. Almost anyone can tell you that the game is not as fluid as it should be. That same person can tell you that a player calling out the lords of the game is certainly not the way to fix it.

That's one issue that Thornton and the Bruins have to face. Yet another one, all jokes aside, is the need for Thornton to begin thinking like a captain.

Like other captains in their early to mid 20s, Thornton was not ready for the job when it was given to him. Coaches and general managers often reason -- incorrectly -- that giving a young player so much responsibility will accelerate him toward maturity. They treat captaincy as if it's a pair of oversized pants that a youth will eventually "fill out."

It doesn't work that way.

Thornton is a fine player, already among the league's top five. He is liked by his teammates and is accessible with the media. But his interview with TSN's Gino Reda shows his leadership is not where it's supposed to be.

I'll be the first to admit that we're heading toward the Hypocrisy Zone on this one. When players come off as pretentious and distant, they are often criticized by the media. Thornton doesn't have to be a jerk. He just has to be more careful in what he does and with what he says.

One of the best things about him is that he has not lost his connection to his hometown of St. Thomas, Ontario. He trains there in the offseason and hangs out with his old friends. But balancing the life you always knew with your life as a new millionaire is a delicate thing (or so I've been told).

Thornton was trying to help his brother last summer and wound up getting into a bar fight himself. The fight made him a hero among those who equate hockey players with professional wrestling stars, but it didn't thrill his bosses. They would like him to train in New England, which would set an example for his teammates. And they would like him to realize that in Canada, he is as big as John Elway and Joe Montana were in America.

Jumbo Joe has a tendency to let interviewers take him wherever they want to go. This has to change. If you listen to his TSN interview, you get the sense that he was not thinking about mentioning retirement until it was mentioned to him.

Thornton has a different style than Bourque, but it wouldn't hurt the fairly new captain to watch tapes of Bourque being interviewed. Everybody loved Raymond, but his words were safe. He was polite and focused. He was professional. He was, at times, intentionally boring.

He was a captain.

All good leaders have the ability to send a message through the media when they want to be heard. Larry Bird did it frequently. If Thornton was trying to do that Monday, he had a clumsy landing.

Really, there's no need for Thornton to go through any of this. He should let the suits take care of making his workplace more enjoyable. All he has to do is use better judgment and stick around another decade.

Old Man Joe has a lot of hockey left in him.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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