It took Joe Thornton almost two decades in the NHL to go viral.
In the past year, the San Jose Sharks center and future Hall of Famer has seen himself turn into an internet meme three times.
The first such situation came last season in Pittsburgh, when a photo surfaced of Thornton, who ranks 20th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,399 points, walking shirtless around the city with teammate Brent Burns on an off day.
Then Thornton and Burns showed off exaggerated forms of their beards in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.
Though Thornton, who is one of the more fun-loving personalities in the NHL, saw his online popularity reach new heights, he had to deal with a lot of gravity and uncertainty in the past year as well. He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee before the playoffs last season — likely the worst injury of his 20-year career — and had to go through surgery and rehab during his first shot at unrestricted free agency. There was also the possibility of leaving San Jose, his home since a 2005-06 trade from the Boston Bruins.
Thornton did re-sign with San Jose but saw longtime teammate Patrick Marleau sign a three-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although this disappointed Thornton, it didn’t seem to upset him, and he still believes that even without Marleau the 6-5-0 Sharks have a solid chance at a Stanley Cup.
We caught up with Thornton to talk about making memes, reading about Charles Darwin, watching Netflix, his knee, his first crack at free agency and nudity.
ESPN.com: What is it like to be one of the top meme makers in the NHL between the shirtless photo last year and signing the contract on a lawnmower?
Thornton: I’m not sure what to think about that, to be honest with you. I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any of that stuff. When that all came out, I remember getting a bunch of text messages saying, “You’re an idiot, what are you doing?”
ESPN.com: Which one did you get messages on?
Thornton: Both. I got a lot of “Put your shirt back on” texts and a lot of “That Kubota [lawnmower] looks pretty tight.”
ESPN.com: Wasn’t it legitimately hot in Pittsburgh that day you took your shirt off?
Thornton: It really was. To start, I want to let you know that I was wearing a shirt and then me and [Burns] were just walking and walking because it was a beautiful day in Pitt. We walked past the football stadium and back and then it was like, “This is too hot, I’m taking my shirt off,” and then lo and behold, there’s the picture.
I believe this is Brent Burns and Joe Thornton. They are walking around Pittsburgh’s North Shore and don’t give ONE HELL. pic.twitter.com/T7t8LiLlBy
— Colin Dunlap (@colin_dunlap) October 19, 2016
ESPN.com: Did you ever think it would become what it became? And was that kind of a crash course in internet viral content for you?
Thornton: Yes, because obviously I was with [Burns] and he was like, “Somebody just sent me this” and then I’m like, “Whoa, what is that?” And then he was like, “This is how many views it’s getting now” and then three minutes later he was like, “This is getting bigger,” and then it was getting bigger, and that’s how I found out what it’s all about.
ESPN.com: Were you embarrassed about it?
Thornton: No … I’m comfortable with my shirt off.
ESPN.com: Then you followed up the shirtless photo with the lawnmower. What gave you the idea to do that photo?
Thornton: So I was up in Canada, and that’s the one thing I love doing when I’m back at the farm, I like cutting the grass, and I remember John [my brother and agent] or Rosemary [Tebaldi, director of hockey administration] from the Sharks sent the contract. We don’t have a fax machine at the farm, so my wife had to go into town and get the contract and when she came back she was like, “Here sign this.” So I was actually out cutting the grass because I cut it every three or four days up there. So she was like, “Sign it right there and I’ll take a picture and send it to John” because John wanted a picture of it, so I was actually cutting the grass when that all came down.
ESPN.com: Did you marvel at the fact that people find this type of stuff so hilarious?
Thornton: I didn’t expect it to do what it did. I guess I don’t think sometimes, and sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s a bad thing.
ESPN.com: Did you see Mark Pysyk’s tweet of him on a lawnmower when he signed his contract?
Thornton: I did. It was awesome. I appreciated that. That was very, very funny. I had a good chuckle at that.
— Mark Pysyk (@mpysyk03) July 6, 2017
ESPN.com: Do you know him?
Thornton: I don’t know him at all. It was very cool. When we play Florida, I’ll have to give him a thumbs up for that. I thought that was super cool.
ESPN.com: You come from a family with very varied educated interests. One brother has a Ph.D. and one went to law school. So what are you reading?
Thornton: Currently, I’m not reading anything. I’m big into Netflix right now, so I’ve been crushing Netflix’s show “Ozark” on the road, which has been really, really good. So that’s what I’m currently doing right now. I was reading a book about Charles Darwin earlier in the summer, and then with the kids I kind of got away from that. Right now it’s just Netflix all the time, it seems.
ESPN.com: What led you down the Darwin path?
Thornton: I like more nonfiction, to be honest with you. My brother Alex [the Ph.D.] was a big Darwin guy and I always heard him talk about him back in the day, so it was, “I just need to know more about this guy.” I think I was at the airport going from Toronto to Zurich and I picked it up and that was it from there, but I just like reading about world history and things like that. That interests me as well as people who kind of changed the world a little bit. I like reading their backgrounds as well.
ESPN.com: Throughout your career, you’ve been afforded opportunities to meet some cool people. Is there anyone you got to meet you’ve always wanted to meet outside of hockey?
Thornton: It would have to be Gord Downie, the lead singer for The Tragically Hip. You know when you meet your idols, you’re not sure how that’s going to go, you just hope it’s going to be as good as you dream it could be. I think meeting Gord and [befriending] Gord, he was the sweetest man I ever met and he just blew me away like, “Wow, this guy is this nice, this kind and literally the sweetest man I ever met.” He’s the guy for me, for sure.
[Note: Downie died on Oct. 17 after battling brain cancer.]
ESPN.com: When did you meet him?
Thornton: I would have met Gord 15 years ago. The reason I got to meet Gord, his brother Patrick lived in Boston when I lived in Boston. We just met 20 years ago and he became best friends with my brother Alex, and that’s how it came about that way. He came to the game we recently played against the Bruins with his son and they’re just the best family that you’d ever want to meet. They really are.
ESPN.com: How personally did you take his passing?
Thornton: For me, I’ll think about Gord Downie every day. Every day until I die, probably. I think about him, I listen to him and he’s one guy I’ll think about all the time. He’s that powerful and, yeah … just The Man, what can I say?
ESPN.com: You were healthy your entire career up until last season, when you tore your ACL and MCL before the playoffs. What was it like going through something like that for the first time?
Thornton: It was tough. Obviously, playing a little bit there after it got hurt and knowing I would have to get surgery once we stopped playing and then doing the surgery, it was a battle. I’m still rehabbing now, but it feels great, but it was a long summer in that aspect because I had to rehab, and every single day I was doing stuff. I really never had to rehab something throughout the summer to allow you to play during the spring and winter and fall, so it was definitely difficult that way. But it responded really well, it feels great, it’s stronger than ever and I feel super healthy right now.
ESPN.com: You’ve said your legs have never been in better shape. Was this kind of a weird and painful way to work on speed later in your career?
Thornton: It was kind of strange, but it definitely really allowed me to focus in on my legs. They feel powerful, they feel good, they feel healthy and I did a lot of biking as well, so my heart feels real strong and my cardio feels really good as well. But it allowed me to get bigger and stronger, which is a good thing at 38.
ESPN.com: What was rehab for you, exactly?
Thornton: When you go through a knee injury, I think your quad gets a little bit smaller, so I was doing a lot of quad work through the summer, constantly working on the quads and making them bigger, stronger, and then just biking on a stationary bike, so constantly riding, and that really helped with the swelling, too. They wanted me to get that flex back and that bending back in my knee, so that helped that come back pretty quickly.
ESPN.com: Let’s be serious: You weren’t rehabbing for hockey, you were rehabbing for the Body Issue, right?
Thornton: I couldn’t really do too much legs during the couple of weeks before the body shoot, so it was all upper body at that point.
ESPN.com: Did you try to hide your knee during those photos?
Thornton: The only thing we were hiding was the midsection, I would say. … It was the only thing we could hide, I guess.
ESPN.com: Were you ever scared as to how the photos would come out?
Thornton: Not at all, not at all, we just had so much fun during that. I thought however it came out, I was going to have some good laughs out of it, so I wasn’t worried at all when that was all going down.
ESPN.com: The beard was a focal point of that photo shoot. Have you ever thought of the opportunities the beard has given you since you grew it out in 2016?
Thornton: I love having it, to be honest with you. I’ve always had a little bit of a beard, but I think this is bigger than I ever thought it could have gotten. I have to take good care of it too and get it trimmed and stuff. It’s strange but what can I say, I like it. I don’t think it’s slowing me down, I feel pretty good on the ice.
ESPN.com: In regard to free agency, was it flattering to have all the interest in you?
Thornton: I think so because it’s the first time I ever went through it. Yeah, it was flattering to see all the teams that contacted my brother John and myself. It was a cool experience to go through and very, very flattering.
ESPN.com: Even after the knee injury to have all these teams lining up for you …
Thornton: That was the big thing for me, as I didn’t know how the knee was going to be and all these teams thought so highly of me to call and see what I was going to do, and if I was going to leave or not. It was definitely a cool period to go through.
ESPN.com: Did you think during that process that you were going to leave the Sharks?
Thornton: Yeah, I guess because I really didn’t know what was going on. Obviously, I love San Jose and I feel like I’m a Shark, but you have all these other teams phoning and, “What if?” and things [go through your head] like that. But I’m super happy to be back with the Sharks.
ESPN.com: Some reports said you wanted to stay with Marleau. Was that a bit of a shock to your system when he went to Toronto?
Thornton: A little bit because I played with Patty for so long. Obviously, I loved playing with Patty and it was just like, “Wow, Patty Marleau is going to be putting on a blue and white jersey and this is going to be strange and he’s not going to be there at training camp.” It was different, but as you know and everybody knows throughout the sport, it’s business. And he’s having a super, super year up in Toronto and I’m super happy for him.
ESPN.com: Did you understand why he left? The three years and a chance to play with Auston Matthews, etc.?
Thornton: I’ve never questioned it. He wanted a change in scenery and I think going to Toronto is going to be a great thing for him. I think he loves it up there and loves playing under [coach Mike Babcock], and they have a great team up there. I think he’s a perfect fit. I know he took this very seriously, if he left San Jose, he wanted to have a great shot to win the Stanley Cup. He wants to win one and I want to win one and we’ll see what happens.
ESPN.com: Beyond your belief in the Sharks, there were also non-hockey reasons you wanted to stay, right?
Thornton: It’s great [living here], but I do feel like being in San Jose, we have a chance to win the Cup every year, and I think that’s a luxury not too many teams have. … That’s the biggest thing with my age and being 38, I believe this team and this coaching staff, we have a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and I truly believe that.
ESPN.com: Did your family play a role in the decision? Your kids are growing up in San Jose. You have a beautiful home. How much did that factor into your decision making?
Thornton: I think a little bit, but they would go anywhere I go. They realize I’m a hockey player and, “Daddy has to go on the road” and they know what my job is and things like that, but ultimately it came down to me wanting to win. Like I said before, we have a great shot again this year. I love our goalie and our back end and our forwards. … I hope to never leave San Jose, but you never know.
ESPN.com: Are you OK with being a one-year contract guy?
Thornton: Yeah, totally … I feel comfortable with my game and it’s not a bad thing going year-to-year. Just continue to have a good year this year and get to the playoffs and go from there. But yeah, I’m totally comfortable going year-to-year.
ESPN.com: It seems you have the type of mindset to do that and not let it bother you …
Thornton: I’ve always done that. I’ve never really focused in on, “It’s my contract year” or if it’s not. I truly love competing with the guys, going to the rink every day, sharing some laughs, winning with the boys, losing with the boys. I love the fellowship and I like everything hockey brings and I enjoy what I do, I really do.
ESPN.com: You seem to have trended like Jaromir Jagr in regard to finding new ways to keep your game relevant, fitness and just love of the game. Do you want to play into your 40s like him?
Thornton: I really don’t know. Trust me, what he’s doing, it’s incredible. But I really don’t know. I’m going to go year-to-year and see how I feel after every year and see if I can help out the team. I’d like to play as long as I can, as long as I play at a high level, as long as I help the team win, that’s what I’ll do.
ESPN.com: Your wife is from Switzerland. You two met there and you’ve said you want to go back to Switzerland after your NHL career. Is that still the plan?
Thornton: I love it over there. We go over every summer and we have a place over there and the kids speak Swiss, and it’s going to be a part of their lives. Me and the wife, we talk about, “Where’s this adventure going to go next?” We’re not sure if we’re going to end up in Switzerland or San Jose. We’re not really sure, so that’s kind of the exciting part as well, not really knowing, which is cool for us. But we’ll definitely be in Switzerland at some point.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.