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ON HOCKEY

Ex-captain finally showed some teeth

As brief and unproductive as Joe Thornton's stay in Boston was this year, his reappearance last night was even shorter, less productive -- and both a tiny bit troubling and immensely out of character for mild-mannered Jumbo Joe.

Just over five minutes into his Causeway Street redux, Thornton, skating into the corner to Boston goalie Andrew Raycroft's left, drilled former teammate Hal Gill into the boards with a menacing hit from behind. It upended the towering defenseman, toppling the 6-foot-7-inch, 250-pound Gill awkwardly into the glass and boards.

Gill, after briefly writhing in pain on the ice, straightened up and made his way to the dressing room still in obvious pain. He sustained a burner, a pinched nerve in his neck, one that still had him unable to turn his head to the left some half-hour after the Bruins' humbling 6-2 loss to the Sharks.

Thornton, never known for his physical play (oft to the frustration of the management team that ultimately traded him to San Jose), stared at the fallen Gill for a second or two before making his way out of the zone.

''He said, 'Are you all right?' " recalled Gill, who said repeatedly after the game that he had no problem with the hit, that he saw it coming and felt it warranted no more than a double minor. ''Now, whether he was being sarcastic when he said, 'Are you all right?' I don't know. Maybe he was a little.

''But I hope he wouldn't hit me and then say he was sorry. I think he wanted to throw me through the boards, and that's OK. I know him well enough. He's not there to hurt you."

To the dismay of the San Jose bench, and especially coach Ron Wilson, the 6-4, 225-pound Thornton was told he, too, was done for the night, assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct for delivering the hit from behind.

So much for much-anticipated return engagements. Thornton's evening lasted three shifts, and he totaled 2:31 in ice time, breaking even on four faceoffs. The former face of the franchise was finished for the night at 5:13, his skate blades barely chilled.

''I was just in shock," said Thornton, noting that Gill later told him he had peeked over his shoulder at the last second and saw the hit coming. ''You see those plays happen."

After the first period, Thornton made his way down the hallway to check on his former teammate. Gill told the media later that he told Thornton he would be fine. If not for what Gill called his ''little drama," writhing on the ice, he felt there was no need to run Thornton out of the game.

''I went and talked to him," said Thornton. ''We're still friends."

In truth, the outcome could have been far worse, and Bruins coach Mike Sullivan labeled the call ''deserving."

''It was a hard hit from behind," said Sullivan, ''and our player got hurt."

It was an ugly hit. Whether it was delivered with malice, only Thornton knows. This is the kind of hit that can cripple if the targeted player (and Gill was lined up) is hit far enough away from the boards, unable to defend himself. His neck can be snapped like kindling.

Gill was less than a stride from the boards. Luckily, he took the force of the blow high to his body, but low enough that his neck did not hyperextend to a point of danger. No small bit of fortune. A little more space between Gill and the boards, a slightly more awkward tumble, and he might have left the ice on a stretcher.

Now, the ugliness and illegality aside (easy to dismiss when it's not your noggin driven into the boards), the message Thornton sent with that hit was precisely the message, and style, that indeed would have made him a franchise center -- and the most valuable player in the game -- here in the Hub of Hockey.

That's not to glorify dangerous or reckless play. But if Thornton had been that engaged with his game, that ornery, that bold and fearsome, then there would have been no way for GM Mike O'Connell & Co. to deal him out of Dodge.

Remember the predraft hype in '97? If you don't, then here it is, one . . . more . . . time: Joe Thornton enters the 1997 draft as an Eric Lindros/Mike Modano hybrid.

Everyone in town was excited, and for two very good reasons: one named Lindros, the other Modano.

Thornton was a little bit of both, but never enough of either. The hybrid wasn't hopeless, but he wasn't as billed, or as hyped. And for the first two months of this season, in particular, he was Jumbo Joe Light, racking up points from the sideboard and behind the goal line, unwilling to put so much as a wrinkle into an opponent's permapress sweater. Upstairs, management wanted grit, and for the most part they got grin.

Lindros/Modano had been the dream, but the reality was Pierre Turgeon, highly skilled, rarely riled. Faced with that reality, and a $20 million commitment over three years, a very frustrated management team decided to put an end to a very frustrating and unproductive Thornton era.

Lindros, in his prime, before a horrible succession of concussions, was as mean and ornery as the game allowed, at least in the politically correct hockey era. Thornton found that out first-hand, and the revelation was delivered by a Lindros punch to his kisser that fractured Thornton's cheekbone in the 2003-04 season.

Prior to getting his dander up last night, Thornton could be found on the rearboards around the 2:30 mark, ferociously muscling with Gill behind Raycroft. It was big man's hockey, loud and strong and rugged, the two titans aggressively working each other over along the boards, hunkering down with legs and elbows flailing. Honest, hard work, marvelous to watch.

When next they met, roughly in the same area, it was the last official act of the evening for the both of them. Gill dashed for the puck as it caromed to the corner, and the revved Thornton, right on his tail, raised his arms and lowered the boom. Gill went off to the doctors. Thornton went off as directed by referee Chris Rooney.

Nearly nine years later, a real Jumbo Joe, playing with a flash of anger and a force to be feared, showed up on Causeway Street. If he had displayed that each night while wearing Black and Gold, with all that brute force and a bit better judgment, how different things might have been.

Rather than remembered, he would have been revered -- and still here.

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