SUNRISE, Florida (AP) – Joe Thornton’s professional career may be over. or not.
The veteran center, who just completed his 24th NHL season and first with the Florida Panthers, said Wednesday that he hasn’t decided whether to retire or continue playing.
“My wife was kind of asking me out last night,” Thornton said. “And really, I don’t have any plans. It’s kind of exciting that way. I came here to win a championship and we couldn’t make it. But I think the Florida Panthers are going to be good for a long time. It’s exciting here now.”
The question is whether he will be part of this excitement in the future.
Thornton will turn 43 on July 2. He was the second oldest skater to appear in a game of the season. New York Islanders defender Zdeno Chara turned 45 in March and, like Thornton, has just completed his 24th season in the league.
They were two of four players in their forties who made appearances this season. Buffalo goalkeeper Craig Anderson was a month shy of turning 41 when he made his last appearance of the season, and Edmonton goalkeeper Mike Smith turned 40 in March.
“I had the honor of playing this game for a long time,” Thornton said. “I don’t take anything for granted.”
Longtime San Jose Sharks teammate Patrick Marlowe announced his retirement this month after playing 23 seasons in the NHL. Marlowe broke Jordi Howe’s playing record and retired after playing 1,779 in the regular season during his career.
Thornton played 1,714 games – his sixth in regular season history – with San Jose, Boston, Toronto and now the Panthers. He recently joked that he would allow Marlowe to keep his place in the history books.
Thornton has made 34 appearances for the Panthers this season, scoring five goals and adding five assists.
“Everyone likes to be around him,” said Panthers striker Anton Lundell. “He is a funny guy and loves to work. You see how much he cares about this sport, how much he loves to play, and the most important thing is how much he loves being around boys. He doesn’t really like taking any days off.”
For perspective, Lundell was born on October 3, 2001. A day later, Thornton began his fifth season in the NHL.
Thornton picked the Panthers last summer because he felt coming to Florida was his best hope of finally winning his first Stanley Cup. The Panthers won the Presidents Cup, scored records for goals, wins and points, and had a playoff streak for the first time since 1996 – but were eliminated in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I wish I could play with him, but I coached him, and that was a great experience,” said Panthers interim coach Andrew Bronte, who played 16 seasons in the National Hockey League before turning his attention to coaching.
Thornton played only one playoff match with the Panthers, which was the end of the series against Lightning. He said he didn’t get into the traditional handshake at the end of that match thinking it might be the last moments of his life as an active player.
“I never really think about ‘what ifs,’ to be honest with you,” Thornton said. “I just try to live in the moment and go from there.”
But the Panthers will go into next season thinking they’re rivals again, and if he decides to go for the 25th season, Thornton may surely like it.
“I think the world of Joe Thornton,” said Panthers general manager Bill Zito.
Thornton is 12th in regular season history with 1,539 points. Most of the 33 top scorers in National Hockey League history have already been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame; The only players not yet involved are Thornton, Jaromir Jäger, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, because none of those four players qualify yet.
Associated Press hockey writer Stephen Winno contributed to this report.
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