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ON HOCKEY

A scorer changes on the fly

TORONTO -- With the National Hockey League about to place itself into suspended animation tomorrow, Joe Thornton is destined to become a captain without a team.

Who will be Jumbo Joe's wingers when the Bruins get back to business? Forget that for now, because by the time the labor dispute is settled, today's candidates for the job could be tomorrow's pensioners. Pull out your woolies, hockey fans, and expect to stay in them for a very cold winter.

For now, Thornton has emerged as, surprise of all surprises, perhaps the best stretch limo of a checking center international hockey has ever seen. Flanked by defensive specialists Kris Draper and Shane Doan, the Bruins' multimillion-dollar captain tonight likely will be asked, first and foremost, to contain the downsized and devilish Saku Koivu when Team Canada faces Finland in the World Cup championship game here at Air Canada Centre.

To a Boston sports fan, the idea of Thornton being fashioned as a checker may have the feel of Manny Ramirez hitting leadoff and playing center field. But sometimes the hardest things to imagine actually are the easiest on the eyes. Not only does Thornton play the role well, he looks very comfortable wearing those Selke-like threads, and he showed Saturday night that defensive chores often lead to offensive numbers. He picked up two assists in Canada's 4-3 overtime win over the Czechs.

"Joey Thornton, I think, has been impressive in each and every game," said Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada's executive director. "He's not getting maybe the publicity that [Vincent] Lecavalier is getting for our team right now, but he's one of the guys -- he's checked his ego at the door, he's become more of a checker than he has in the past. He's been a huge part of the success of our team and the success of a guy like Vincent."

For his part, and to his credit, Thornton took the Great One's praise as words from on high and has taken his new role as an honor. Following yesterday's morning workout, he quietly talked with a few reporters at the outer edges of the dressing room, appearing almost reluctant to put himself in the spotlight.

"I'm fine with that," said Thornton, asked about being cast as a defensive go-to guy, more than seven years after he was selected No. 1 overall in the entry draft, the Bruins figuring he would be somewhat of a hybrid of Mike Modano and Eric Lindros. "I mean, just to be part of this team is obviously great.

"Everyone had to have a role, and I'm happy with the role I have."

His effectiveness in the role aside, Thornton's skills are no doubt diminished when he is rolled out primarily as a checker. At his offensive best, which comes when he leads with his skating game, the 6-foot-4-inch Thornton is a passer first, shooter second, which made life in Boston pretty good for his right winger, Glen Murray, the last couple of years. Here with Draper and Doan -- a unit dubbed in the Canadian press as the "DDT Line" -- his first job is to contain the opposition's No. 1 center. If he gets to pass or shoot, that's icing. It's not so much role reversal as it is role relinquishment.

"We have so many good centers," said Thornton, who has seen Mario Lemieux shift from center to wing for the good of game and country. "There's only place for four centers, so like I say, just to be part of the team is special. It's just great to go out there and play in the games. If you go out and play your game, good things will happen."

Whether Thornton is defensive specialist or goal-scoring powerhouse, the Canadians should be able to handle the Finns, who knocked off the US in the semifinals. Winners of the '02 Olympics, the Canadians are better and deeper (witness that 6-4 checking center), and they have the upstart Finns on their home ice.

During his great run with the Oilers in the '80s, Gretzky saw his Edmonton teammates take on different roles come crunch time. An offensive powerhouse, the greatest scoring force the game had ever seen, the Gretzky-era Oilers each year became a dynamic defensive team in the playoffs. In part, that's why Gretzky chose Draper and Doan to be on this squad, and how Thornton, the main man on Causeway Street, has taken on a job that reads more like a paragraph in the Steve Kasper resume.

"There's a lot of guys that can step in and be captain of this team," said Gretzky, musing over how some of the younger Team Canada players soon will segue into the leadership roles held by the likes of Lemieux and Joe Sakic. "Look at this group of guys -- guys who aren't even here right now like Ed Jovanovski. You see a guy like Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier. These guys, Joey Thornton, they push each other. I think each line that goes on has a good shift, and that pushes the next line to get out there and have a better shift. There's a competitiveness within them, and yet an unselfishness."

Seven years into his Bruins career, Thornton still has management, media, and fans saying they expect his best is yet to come. General manager Mike O'Connell said just that last month, minutes after Thornton scored nearly $7 million via arbitration. For all those waiting, the expectation has been that he would be a perennial 100-point scorer, building from a base of 30-35 goals. Just wind him up and let him go out there and score points.

No one, Thornton included, ever could have expected that he would be here tonight, on the verge of his biggest victory since turning professional, suited up as a shutdown artist. He made his reputation and his millions as someone who could make it all happen, and by definition that has meant offense, first and last. But not here. Not now.

So when that next Bruins season finally gets under way, who will be Jumbo Joe's wingers? It could be that they're the two best checkers O'Connell & Co. can find. That's not exactly what any of us expected. But seven seasons gone by, much of his career in Boston hasn't been what we expected. 

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