The Night Joe Thornton Was Traded to San Jose: An Oral History
15 years ago in Dallas, everything changed for the San Jose Sharks.
On November 30, 2005, general manager Doug Wilson sent shockwaves through the hockey world when he acquired Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm, and Wayne Primeau.
The 26-year-old would kickstart a San Jose Sharks squad mired in a 10-game losing streak and nine points out of the playoffs at the time of the trade. Thornton made it rain with 92 points in San Jose’s next 58 games, on his way to the 2006 Hart Trophy, and the Sharks would breeze into the post-season.
Jumbo was no one-year wonder, skating 15 unforgettable seasons in teal before signing with Toronto last month:
To commemorate the 15th anniversary of this franchise-altering deal, Sturm, Niko Dimitrakos, Nolan Schaefer, and Rob Zettler spoke to San Jose Hockey Now for an oral history of the trade.
Wilson walked into the coaches room at American Airlines Center a little bit before the 7:30 PM tilt. The San Jose Sharks had already warmed up and Sharks assistant coach Zettler was with head coach Ron Wilson and assistant coach Tim Hunter.
Rob Zettler: Doug came in and said, “We’ve made a trade. We’ve traded Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm.” We were like, oh okay. He hesitated for a second. Then he said, “And we just got Joe Thornton.”
And we’re like, “Yeah right, yeah right.” We’re all looking at each other. He said, “No, I’m serious. We just traded for Joe Thornton.”
It was a moment of wait a second…Boston traded Joe Thornton? It was a little surreal and took a second to sink in, without a doubt.
Literally, it was my job to go find the guys who we already told we weren’t playing.
Those guys were winger Niko Dimitrakos and defenseman Jim Fahey. But with Stuart, Sturm, and Primeau out of the line-up, Dimitrakos and Fahey needed to be found pronto.
And there were three players that Wilson needed to speak to: Stuart, Sturm, and Primeau. Also in the locker room was rookie goaltender Schaefer, Evgeni Nabokov’s back-up that night.
Marco Sturm: We were on the way out [to the ice] and we were called into the office.
Nolan Schaefer: 100 percent we noticed. I just assumed, at the time, that these players were getting a talk from the GM because we weren’t doing that well. Everybody was kind of buzzing, like what is happening?
Sturm: Even then, I was still young and everything for me was for the first time. Prims, it had already happened to him before, so he knew right away. He asked, “Where are we going?”
Then I realized, “Okay, shit.”
Doug was trying to find the right words too. He told us he had made a big trade and he’s going to get a good player but losing good players as well. That’s the business, right? I found out first-hand through my first trade how things work.
Schaefer: Then [Marco, Brad, and Wayne] came back in and they were shook.
I was in such rookie mode that I literally didn’t want to ask too many questions. Didn’t want to say too much. All I knew was these guys were traded.
Sturm: Everything happened so fast. Guys were already going out to the ice.
We just said goodbye to the equipment guys, our trainers, those kind of guys who’ve been there since Day One for me. There were definitely some tears and disbelief.
But we had to pack our stuff, get back to the hotel.
As Sturm, Stuart, and Primeau cleaned out their stalls, Dimitrakos and Fahey hurried down to suit up. Their big question: Would they be able to keep dinner down?
Niko Dimitrakos: They couldn’t find us because we were in the media room.
We had gone to the media room to eat dinner. I think it was prime rib and potatoes. We stuffed our faces. Then we headed up to the pressbox to watch the game. Grabbed a tub of popcorn and Diet Coke.
We rushed down to the locker room to get dressed.
We were in the locker room with the guys that got traded, who we had played with for a few years, Marco, Wayne Primeau, and Brad.
Schaefer: It was an emotional thing for the team for those players to be not there. It was almost like losing a family member. That’s how it was treated at the time.
Dimitrakos: It was like your brother is moving onto the Army or something — or to the other side of the country. Who knows when you’ll see them again.
It was awful to see those guys go. We should’ve been playing a lot better. It should’ve never happened, but it did.
On the cab ride back to the hotel, the 27-year-old Sturm was processing his own emotions.
Sturm: It was my first trade ever. It was really unexpected. Why? It was not the start we wanted, but it was still early. Not too many players in the league get traded in October, November.
I was devastated. I remember calling my wife because she was in San Jose and just pregnant. It was not easy because our flight was the next day at 6 AM to Boston and we were on the road and had no clothes and I had to play the next day.
San Jose was my home. I definitely didn’t want to leave the Sharks, that’s for sure.
We had bought a new house in San Jose too. We moved in probably like three, four weeks before that.
It’s not just a trade. It’s not just sports. It’s more than that.
The Sharks would play with 17 skaters instead of the customary 18 that night. Dimitrakos and Fahey managed to keep dinner down, but that might’ve been the team’s most significant on-the-ice accomplishment that night, as they fell in a 4-1 haze, losing their 10th straight
Zettler: We lost that game. We weren’t very good.
Schaefer: We joked that Jimmy [Fahey] was having a steak and cheese coming down. I don’t know how accurate that is for an article, but we had that joke after the game.
Dimitrakos: It was awkward, to say the least. Getting called down. Getting dressed. Stomach was full. (laughs) No warm-ups. No nothing.
Schaefer: The focus was to try to focus on the game. But at the same time, it was kind of a surreal experience.
The San Jose Sharks were a team looking ahead. The next day in Buffalo, Jumbo stomped into the Sharks room for the first time.
Schaefer: There were two moments when the atmosphere really changed.
When those three players got pulled out of the line-up and told they were traded. And the other, from my perspective, was when Joe walked into the locker room with his gear for [the first time] and that uplifting feeling of having Joe Thornton in your locker room.
Zettler: Obviously, those are three good dudes and good hockey players, but you get excited about Joe Thornton coming in and the impact he’s going to have.
Schaefer: I literally just remember him sitting down with his gear. I don’t know what it is, but I just remember the peace that he had.
This was one elephant in the room that could never be ignored.
Zettler: He brought energy. He does what he does on the ice. He’s obviously an elite player. But what he does off the ice, the energy that he brings in practice and on the bus and in the dressing room, he’s a pretty loud guy when he gets going.
That laugh of his is very contagious. He has that ability to make the dressing room feel good.
At the same time, he brings the work ethic. He holds people accountable that way. He’s got both sides to him where he’s able to have a lot of fun with the guys and keep things light. But when it’s time to practice and work, he expects the work to come in. Not only expects it, but does it.
That’s how our culture and our dynamic changed, he immediately became our leader in that dressing room.
Dimitrakos: He was definitely able to come in and make everybody feel a part of it. Sometimes, there are cliques. There’s certain guys who hang with certain guys.
We’d go out on the road [before Joe]. A lot of guys would go together, the older veteran players. But when Joe did come over, it definitely was a little more loose off the ice [between younger and older players]. He definitely made a point of it.
The other guys, they would ask, but he was more, “Let’s go! We’re all going! C’mon, boys!”
Schaefer: The child-like joy and leadership that he exudes is absolutely impossible to replicate. This is a guy whose value exceeds far above his performance on the ice.
This is one of the people who can lift up a dressing room. Make things funny and light when there’s pressure and still go out, put the product on the ice.
Meanwhile, 500 miles away, Sturm told Boston media that he wanted a fresh start. And he got it that night, scoring a goal in his first shift in the black and gold.
“After the goal, I kind of felt free,” Sturm admitted after Boston’s 3-0 shutout of Ottawa. “I haven’t felt that way for a long time.”
Sturm: That summer, I came back late because my mom passed away. I came late to training camp.
She was 49. We found out 10 days before she passed away.
I had a decent start, but Ron Wilson, I don’t know. I don’t know if he was the biggest fan of me. But definitely, the weeks before [the trade], I struggled a little bit.
Not just hockey, but my mom passing away and everything. It was hard for me. It was really hard.
Then with the coach and the way I played, Boston felt like a fresh start for me.
Just like the trade, everything happened in a short time. (laughs) I was just not prepared. We were not prepared as a family.
These two, three months, my life, our family life totally changed. It was not easy.
The trade paid immediate dividends for San Jose too, as Thornton collected a pair of assists in his Sharks debut, a 5-0 shutout of Buffalo on December 2nd.
Zettler: He asked who he’s going to play with and we told him it’s going to be [Jonathan] Cheechoo on his right side.
Joe said to Cheech, “Just go to the net and put your stick on the ice and I’ll find you.” He ended up with two or three that night.
It was fun as a coaching staff to look at the line-up with a number-one center, thinking of the possibilities.
This was just the beginning for the 2005-06 San Jose Sharks. They kicked off Thornton’s tenure with a six-game winning streak. They added winning streaks of five, four, four, and eight games. From December 2nd on, the Sharks tied for the second-best record in the league. Cheechoo would scored 49 goals after the trade, 39 of them assisted by Thornton, en route to the Rocket Richard Trophy.
Even Schaefer, who was up for just a few days in December and again in January, could see how Thornton had transformed San Jose.
Schaefer: It was just pure fire. The place was on fire.
We were excited to see what we could do. As opposed to earlier on, when it was we had to hold things things together here. The focus was on how could we put out the fire.
It literally went to an excitement about being a part of this hockey team that was literally just climbing and climbing. Every player was pitching in, every player was enjoying every moment of being there.
It was such a big contrast [to before Joe]. It speaks to being able to bring in a player like Joe Thornton.
Zettler: You add a player of that caliber, it helps everybody. It’d be like adding MacKinnon now to your team. Of course you’re going to be a better team.
He just commands so much attention from the opposition, opens up space for other people and creates space for himself.
Because he can make plays and make them through small areas, the unexpected play, everybody’s like this puck could come to me, I got to be ready. You just caught people’s attention, got them a little more focused.
Dimitrakos: When you see three of your buddies get traded, it tells you to wake up, right?
I can remember him saying, “Got some good players out here in the West Coast.” Because we were clicking as a team.
There were some good players out on the West Coast, but the dream season ended in the second round of the playoffs to Edmonton. Regardless, even Schaefer and Dimitrakos, who each only played with Thornton for a single season, had Jumbo stories to last a lifetime.
Schaefer: It’s literally the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.
Dimitrakos: The biggest thing is just the laughter. Laughing is good for you. We did a lot of that.
My face used to hurt all the time because he would make me laugh all the time.
Schaefer: He invited a group of the rookies, Grant Stevenson, Doug Murray, Marcel Goc, myself over to his house to sit around and play the NHL Playstation game with his face on the cover. (laughs)
He really made you feel like you were a part of something. He wanted you to feel that joy too, be a part of that.
Dimitrakos: One story I can remember, I had moved into a new house. Jumbo came over to help paint. It was him and Scott Parker.
We were painting one of the rooms a burgundy red. I was up on the ladder. All of the sudden, I feel my legs are really cold. And it was really hot outside.
I can hear a little chuckling. It’s him and he’s painting the back of my calves. My calves were all red. I died laughing.
Schaefer: You have a guy who’s throwing gummy bears on the plane, making guys laugh. Then going out on the ice, such a leader on the team, controlling the tempo of the game.
There’s no other Joe Thornton. There’s nobody who did it like Joe.
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