Sharks center Joe Thornton is no ordinary Joe -- on or off the ice

Joe Thornton's accolades -- he ranks second among active players in points (1,341), has won both the Ross and Hart trophies and is an 11-time All-Star -- only tell part of the story of the impact he has made during his 18-year career. Billy Hurst/USA TODAY Sports

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The folks in Joe Thornton's inner circle are torn.

They want outsiders to know the kind of guy Thornton truly is, to learn that the San Jose Sharks center has as big a heart as any superstar in hockey. But they realize he's more than content to keep that part of his personality private.

"He helps people, but it's just to help people, not for other people to find out about it," said his brother, John. "That's the thing."

There might not be a more generous superstar in hockey -- with his time, his money, his willingness to include those around him. But you'll never hear Thornton talk about it.

"That's what makes him so special," said former Sharks defenseman Douglas Murray, a close friend. "Some guys, you tell the story and they make a big deal out of it. The big story with Joe is that's not why he does it. He just does things because he's a genuinely nice, kind-hearted person."

Still, his friends and family are eager to correct the public perception of Thornton, which is often skewed.

At least it was. That's starting to change this spring.

The rest of the world is seeing more of the real Joe Thornton. They see him dancing with Blues fans during the middle of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. They see him deadpanning at a postgame news conference about how great he is. They see him producing at a high level during another long playoff run, with 14 points in 16 playoff games.

All of that has helped change the narrative that has followed Thornton, 36, for most of his 18-year career with the Sharks and Boston Bruins. Fans are gaining an appreciation for his game -- and his personality.

"I hear all this B.S. in the postseason about how Joe Thornton has turned it around, looks like a different Joe," said former Sharks forward Devin Setoguchi, who still lives in San Jose and remains friends with Thornton. "He's always been this great player. He's the best passer who has played the game in the last 18 years."

Another one of Thornton's close friends is Tom Holy, who spent eight seasons in media relations with the Sharks before leaving in 2013 to become senior director of communications for the Dallas Stars. During Holy's second or third year with San Jose, he was having dinner with Thornton and a few friends in Las Vegas at the Wynn hotel. Holy's weight had been fluctuating, so Thornton proposed a bet over dinner -- between Holy and another friend -- to see who could lose more weight in three months. Thornton promised the winner $2,000.

Holy went home and didn't think much more about it, figuring it was just another ridiculous bet placed in Vegas.

Two days later, Thornton and his wife, Tabea, showed up at Holy's front door with their arms full of groceries.

"This is how you're going to eat," Thornton said, while unloading egg whites, whole wheat bread, chicken breasts, protein powder and hundreds of dollars' worth of health food.

Thornton hadn't just made a bet for his own entertainment value. In Holy, he saw someone who needed a little boost.

"All because of Joe, I start working out," Holy said. "When somebody else is getting something out of it, it makes him want to do it more."

Thornton once bought Rick Bronwell, a former assistant equipment manager with the Sharks, his dream guitar during a trip to Nashville because of another bet.

Bronwell had to earn it, with conditions that included going up on stage to perform a couple songs at Tootsie's in Nashville. And now one of Bronwell's most prized possessions is that McPherson acoustic guitar.

"He'd take a bullet for you," Bronwell said. "He's like your brother or uncle. He always looked out for anybody who worked for the Sharks."

When Bronwell left San Jose for a job with the Minnesota Wild, it was Thornton who objected the loudest.

"The worst part was leaving Joe there," Bronwell said. "I remember him [saying], 'Why are you going? Why do you have to go?' He truly cares about your family. He cares about you."

UFC commentator Mike Goldberg once helped get Thornton tickets to a fight at the last second, when Thornton reached out through former Sharks broadcaster Drew Remenda.

Thornton learned later that Goldberg and his hockey-playing son, Kole, had to come to San Jose for a dinner at Morton's steakhouse. Guess who showed up to greet them?

"My son is 11 or 12 years old, we're sitting there having dinner with Joe Thornton like we're lifelong friends with him," Goldberg said. "Joe is the most selfless, giving, genuine person I've ever met."

A steak dinner normally would be enough of a thank you, but it kicked off what became a friendship between the Goldberg family and Thornton, who also became invested in Kole's hockey career.

When Kole played in a Silver Stick tournament in San Jose, Thornton was in the stands. Thornton signed a jersey for him and made sure the inscription let Kole know that Thornton noticed a great pass he made during the game. It read, "To Kole: You look like me out there, nice apple!!! Joe Thornton."

"Who signs like that?" Goldberg said, laughing. "Nobody has a jersey like that."

Even in the middle of the playoffs, Thornton found time to reach out to his friend. Last week he sent Kole a text wishing him a happy 16th birthday.

All because of a ticket to a UFC fight years ago.

"As a dad, I look at my son and say, 'If you're going to be like Joe Thornton, I'm going to be OK with that,'" Goldberg said.

The Sharks dressing room includes a couple of players who had no idea what they were getting in Thornton when they moved from the Eastern Conference to San Jose.

Defenseman Paul Martin had heard the misinformation that sometimes surrounds Thornton. That he doesn't care enough. That the fact he preferred to stay in San Jose rather than chase a Stanley Cup elsewhere meant he didn't really want to win. Martin quickly learned otherwise.

"He's the ultimate leader," Martin said. "He plays hard, he makes sure everyone is included but also lets you know if they need more out of you."

Forward Joel Ward joined the Sharks last July after four seasons with the Washington Capitals and didn't want to know anything about the past. He didn't pry into why Thornton lost his captaincy after the 2013-14 season or what the rumored dysfunction in San Jose had been about.

He chose to form his own opinion of Thornton.

"He's the one guy I wish every hockey player had a chance to come across," Ward said. "He's the true meaning of the league, as a pro athlete and what it stands for to be a National Hockey League player."

After Game 5, Thornton and the Sharks are leading the St. Louis Blues 3-2 in the Western Conference finals. He's getting closer to a Cup. Even if he doesn't win it, he is clearly one of the best players of his era. And to those close to him, he's one of the most generous people they know.

Generous is also a fair way to describe how Thornton plays the game. He makes everyone around him better on the ice. He boosts their careers. Players have earned millions just by playing on his wing.

Being close to Thornton is usually a really good thing.

Because of that, a lot of people outside the Sharks dressing room will be rooting for him to raise a Stanley Cup this spring. Thornton doesn't need it for his legacy. They just want it to happen for Joe Thornton, the person.

"I can guarantee you one thing, everybody who has ever played with him definitely wants him to win," Murray said. "They know he deserves to win one, too."