“So,” I ask Shawn Thornton. “What have you learned about yourself since taking the job?”
“Whoa, there!” the recently retired winger stops me. “That’s a pretty deep question.”
In fairness, we had been talking for only about three minutes, and Thornton — who scraped together a 20-year pro career, including 14 in the NHL, largely as an enforcer — had been in his new role for only three months. But the transition is significant. In April, after winning a Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and playing his last two years with the Florida Panthers, Thornton threw out his skates — literally. He chucked them in the trash, fetching them only when he realized he could auction them off for charity. (Some guy paid $2,500.) In June, the Panthers introduced Thornton as their vice president of business operations. It’s a hefty title and an unconventional one for a former player.
“Not too many people go from the actual sporting world to the business world,” the 40-year-old Thornton said. “Usually when guys retire and join an organization, they go into hockey ops or scouting.”
Indeed, Kevin Lowe, the vice chairman of the Edmonton Oilers, and Luc Robitaille, the president of the Los Angeles Kings, are among Thornton’s few contemporaries. The Panthers, meanwhile, are an intriguing organization to join: a Sun Belt former expansion team still tussling for footing. As of 2015, the Panthers had reportedly lost $154 million over two decades in South Florida. The team struck a favorable deal with Broward County for a renewed lease in 2015 and has seen improvements since (including a spike to set attendance records in 2016).
The Panthers enter year five with an ownership group known in the NHL for being “the military guys”: Owner Vincent Viola, who withdrew as President Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Army, has hired at least a half-dozen front-office staffers with military backgrounds. The team has since toughened up in a hockey sense, too. Besides Thornton, the 6-foot-2, 217-pounder who admits that he “made a career getting punched in the face for 20 years,” the Panthers have hired gritty Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Pronger as a senior adviser in hockey ops and Bob Boughner, a rugged 10-year NHL veteran, as coach.
As for Thornton? Over 30 minutes, we discussed how he’s adapting to life in a cubicle. As it turns out, he’s more introspective than he thinks.
He has learned about routine.
“I’m a Monday-to-Friday guy, technically 9:30 to 5:30, but obviously, it changes every day. I’m not going to complain about the hours because people work way longer hours than me, but it takes some adjusting. When [I] call home, ‘I won’t be home for dinner.’ I mean, that never used to happen. ‘I’m stuck at the office until 8 tonight.’ Why? Because that’s the real world, and that’s what real people do. I haven’t been part of that world until now. I have friends who work normal jobs, and if we used to meet for a beer, maybe they’d be delayed a half-hour or an hour, and I’d be like, ‘That a–h— is late again!’ Now I get it.”
He has learned to say goodbye to some luxuries.
“No more naps! During the season, you nap a lot because of travel. During the offseason, I’d train from 6 a.m. to 1 or 2, then my day was done, and I’d go home and nap because I was exhausted. I just don’t have time anymore.”
He has learned how to learn a little bit about everything.
“I’m in on marketing meetings, I’m in on corporate partnership meetings, I’m in on ticketing meetings, sitting with finance once or twice a week. I meet with some of our corporate sponsors to see what some of their needs might be. I meet about our practice facility to see what we can do to make that more successful and more enjoyable for everyone in the area.”
He has learned that you sometimes don’t know where life will take you.
“After I had five years in the minors in Chicago, up and down, up and down, my wife and I talked about it, and we gave ourselves one more year. I was 29 years old. I had been at it for nine, almost 10 years. ‘I’ll give it one more year to get to 10 years pro.’ How much longer was I going to do this? I mean, 32, that might be stretching it as a career minor leaguer. So I was getting ready to become a police officer. We were friends with a few police officers in Toronto. We used to go on ride-alongs with them once a month and played hockey with them at least once a month to get my foot in the door and network. My wife had actually finished her police testing when she came to live with me. She was going to do it, too. That was the plan. I was making like $125,000-, $130,000-money in the minors — that’s still really good money in the real world. I wanted to do that as long as possible. But then there was the question: What would I do after? And it would have been tough to join onto a police force at 35. I just gave it one more try with one more organization to see if I could make it work in the NHL, or else I would go be a police officer. So obviously that didn’t happen. Our lives changed, but no looking back.”
He has learned that it’s OK to have a different path.
“I’m the only one on our business side of the front office that has a hockey background. Unless they’re lying to me, everyone in our office appreciates my perspective. I was in five different organizations — some that were very successful and some that weren’t. Chicago is an example. They were terrible when I was there. Couldn’t get anyone in the building. Now they sell out every single night. Seeing the changes they made, seeing changes in Boston — going from 12,000 people in the building to selling out every night and winning championships — then seeing changes we’re trying to make here. I definitely don’t have a college degree or a résumé, but I have things that people haven’t seen on the other side.”
He has learned about the challenges of marketing a team in South Florida.
“We have a transient market here, as everyone knows. We get a lot of visiting-team fans here. It doesn’t matter how many fans we have, if we’re playing the Montreal Canadiens, there’s probably going to be 10,000 snowbirds from Montreal coming to our game. Same with Toronto, same with Chicago. There’s some challenges we need to deal with that other teams don’t. But we’re working on it. We’re trying to build our fan base, and I’m a big believer that to do that, it’s going to take some time, but it needs to be grass-roots.”
He has learned what needs to be marketed.
“We have a lot of talent here. One of the small answers [to what needs to be marketed] is letting the players’ personalities come out. We need to let people know that a guy like Sascha [Aleksander] Barkov is actually a pretty funny guy. Mark Pysyk is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. Keith Yandle is way more intense than people give him credit for. When people start to understand the personalities that are involved in our organization, because we have some great ones, that will help.”
He has learned that it’s OK to ask for help.
“Damn Excel. I’m still figuring it out. I’ve been sitting with our accountant once or twice a week going through spreadsheets. I have something on my plate I’m trying to put together. I will say everyone here has been amazing in terms of trying to help me out with stuff like that. I was punched in the face for 20 years. I wasn’t behind a computer screen trying to put together spreadsheets. I’m getting there.”
He has learned that his body will always be scarred by hockey.
“My right hand is mangled, for the lack of a better word. It’s really sore. There’s not much I can do for it. I’ve sat down with hand surgeons, the specialists, and hopefully it just gets better over time. My hips are a little sore sometimes. But all in all, for the amount of time I played and the job I had to do while playing, I’m very, very lucky. When it comes to concussions, I’m not too worried about it. I think some people are susceptible to them. That probably sounds naive. Nobody took too many runs at me. A majority of the concussions in hockey, I think, come from clean or dirty open-ice hits with guys moving at 35 mph with huge shoulder pads on. Some come from fighting, obviously, and it seems more prevalent because it’s the easy thing to blame it on because everyone is watching when two guys square off. You’re the show. If someone gets hit and hurt, you definitely see it. In a fast-moving game, if someone gets hit, the play keeps going, so the play is magnified. In junior, I had one bad concussion. I had a bad one when John Scott hit me in Buffalo. But I don’t think I had more than that. So I’m not really worried about my brain.”
He has learned that he still needs to care for his body.
“I was at the practice rink [last week] and saw some of the guys, and they were like, ‘Hey, you look jacked as always.’ No, not really, but appreciate the thought. All of my clothes still fit. I can still rock the same suits and wear the same stuff. I don’t want to buy all new s—. My goal now is to not get fat. Whereas before, it was to be in the best condition physically possible for myself to play hockey. But now, it’s just don’t get fat. With all of the beers I have, just break even, that’s my goal now. I try to get a sweat in most days. Monday is a three-mile run and a workout. Tuesday is jitsu. Wednesday, run or bike and a lift. Thursday, jitsu. Friday, run or bike and lift. Saturday is jitsu or go for a long run.”
He has learned that team culture isn’t exclusive to being an athlete.
“I like everyone that works here. It’s kind of like a locker-room environment, actually. There’s a lot of young, hungry people. There’s a lot of communication. There’s a lot of busting balls. Guys in sales walk by and chirp on my shoes all the time.”
He has learned that it’s a process.
“There’s nothing I’ve done here I’m particularly proud of yet. I mean, I’ve been here three months. I’m working on things that I think will come to fruition soon. I’ll get back to you.”
He has learned when to lean on experiences as a former player.
“OK, one of the things I’m trying to do is streamline our player appearances, trying to get guys to do a little more in the community but also the right things in the community. I don’t think there’s been a streamlined approach to asking players from different departments. Why don’t we ask the players what they want to do, as opposed to telling them what they need to do? For myself, nobody ever had to tell me to go to a children’s hospital. It never felt like an ask because I enjoyed doing it. Same with Parkinson’s for me; I started a foundation. I care about it, so if you ask me to go speak to people at a Parkinson’s research lab, same thing: How we can make it as easy as possible for players so they want to do it. I know by being around hockey for a while, it’s not always that way. You get some bad asks. I sat in a penalty box for eight hours at some fan fest once. I might be exaggerating, but it sure as hell felt like eight hours. Like, here’s the tough guy, put him in a penalty box! All day? Let me play air hockey or something.”
He’s learning that he can be a company man.
“I’m actually enjoying this more than I thought I would. The ownership cares as much as any ownership I’ve ever seen. Yes, there’s challenges here, but I like challenges. That’s intriguing to me. But mostly, when we sat down and began talking about a job a year and a half ago, where I would fit in the organization after hockey, they had so much confidence in me. They had a vision for the role, and they approached me, and that’s what felt amazing. They approached me. I already had an opportunity for another job back in Boston [reportedly as a broadcaster]. So there was a month I wasn’t sleeping at night, literally at all, because it was a life-changing decision. Should I go back or do this? I’m confident I made the right choice.”