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Joe Thornton trade permanently altered two franchises

The Bruins traded Joe Thornton during his eighth season in Boston. Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It has been more than 10 years since Joe Thornton was out at dinner in Boston with his parents and future wife when his phone rang.

It was then-Boston Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell informing the captain he had been traded to the San Jose Sharks.

Say what?

"I had no idea it was coming," Thornton said this weekend. "It's so long ago, but all I remember is that the team was struggling at the time. And then boom, that was it. I never read papers anyway, but I never heard anybody say I was on the trading block. It came right out of left field."

The next day, he was on a plane to Buffalo to join his new Sharks teammates.

And if you think it was a whirlwind time for Thornton, his girlfriend, Tabea, whom he would later marry, was even more shaken.

"She actually moved to Boston [from Switzerland] for about two weeks and I got traded," Thornton recalled with a chuckle. "She had no idea that people could get traded. I think it shook her world more than mine. She had no idea what was going on, all of a sudden I was gone. It was very strange for her."

Don't kid yourself, it didn't take long for life in San Jose to be just fine for Thornton and his wife, who now have two children, ages 5 and 2.

"It's worked out great," said Thornton. "I've really enjoyed my time here, just like I did in Boston. Really, I'm very, very lucky to have played for two great franchises."

The seeds were planted for a Thornton trade likely as early as the 2004 playoffs when the No. 2-seeded Bruins were upset by the rival Montreal Canadiens, the No. 7 seed. Thornton was silent offensively while playing with broken ribs. Media and fans -- and I would venture to say ownership, too -- put much of the blame on the young Bruins captain for that loss.

The Bruins came out of the 2004-05 season-long lockout with a weak roster, having lost a number of key free agents; and when the team struggled early in the 2005-06 season, O'Connell began to think big.

"It was an interesting time," O'Connell said last week, agreeing to a rare interview on the subject of that trade. "You learn from your bosses. I look back at Harry Sinden and the time I spent with him and how clear a thinker he is, and how bright he is, and he used to tell you that your job was to improve the hockey team -- and regardless of how that unfolds in the present, near future and future, if you think you have to make a move to better your hockey club, regardless of whether it ends up being right or wrong, if you don't do it, you're not doing your job."

O'Connell felt he had to make a move of such magnitude in order to rebuild the team.

"Knowing the team like I did, knowing how our lineup was decimated by our decision to let our free agents go, we had a lot of work to do to try and make up where we were," said O'Connell, now a valued member of the Los Angeles Kings' front office.

"Well, we had lost like nine games in a row around that time," said Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, recalling his side of the blockbuster. "We had been in discussions with Boston on a few different things. I remember saying, maybe we should do something bigger. It just came together."

So on Nov. 30, 2005, the Bruins dealt Thornton to the Sharks in exchange for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau.

The Sharks won the trade purely based on the players involved, as Thornton is headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day. But with the trade the Bruins created cap flexibility, enabling them to later acquire Marc Savard and Zdeno Chara, among others.

"I think it's clearer now, but I remember thinking even then, when you make a trade [in the cap system], sure it's about what you get back, but as you see now, it's a lot what you free up, too," said O'Connell. "At that point, we had to free up money. It was about rebuilding and having the flexibility of taking advantage of some of the free agents coming up, which I didn't get the chance to do. But Jeff Gorton did a terrific job of that."

Gorton, now the New York Rangers GM, took over as interim GM after O'Connell was fired in March 2006.

More than a decade later, O'Connell has nothing but good things to say about Thornton.

"Joe's a terrific player," said O'Connell. "I know a lot has been said, but Joe's a terrific player. And he's a very, very good teammate. When you really come down to it, being a good teammate is probably the nicest thing you can say about someone."

Added O'Connell: "The bottom line was, it was probably less about Joe and more about what we had to try and do."

It is certainly one of Wilson's finest moves during his long tenure as Sharks GM.

"Joe has never changed -- I don't think there's a player that's ever loved the game more than Joe Thornton," said Wilson. "He just truly loves being at the rink. He's a special guy, one of the great players to play the game. What a difference he's made for our franchise, what a breath of fresh air he was for our franchise."

Thornton just can't believe it's already his 11th season in San Jose.

"It does go by fast," said Thornton. "I remember being one of the younger guys and one of the older guys would say, 'Hey, boys, you got to enjoy the moment, enjoy the ups and downs, because it goes by real fast.' You never really register that. You're just in the moment. But I'm 36 years old now. Believe me, it goes by really fast."

The future looks exciting.

Thornton's wife, Tabea, is back in her native Switzerland; she's getting the keys to the place they just built in Davos on Monday.

Life after hockey will definitely include time spent there.

And who knows, maybe Thornton -- who played in Switzerland during both lockouts, in 2004-05 and 2012-13 -- might even wrap up his career over there one day if HC Davos was interested.

"Possibly, yeah," Thornton said. "Right now, you're just focused on this but down the road, maybe. Although as long as my body is good, I'd like to play as many years as possible here, too. Who knows, right?

"The biggest thing is that I feel good, I really do. I have no injuries, which is kind of unheard of for a guy who's 36 years old. I feel strong. I feel like I can still contribute. I feel really good at this stage of my career, I really do."

I mention Jaromir Jagr still playing and having an impact in the NHL at the age of 43.

"I think as long as you keep your body in great condition, avoid any major injuries and keep your mind clear, I think you can play as long as you want, and Jags is a great example of that," said Thornton. "Sure, I'd like to play until I'm 40 and even maybe a bit older. We'll have to wait and see."