The Boston Bruins don’t envision Joe Thornton as another Wayne Gretzky, even if the 17-year-old threatened some of the Great One’s junior scoring records.
They’ll be perfectly satisfied if the first player chosen in Saturday’s NHL draft is another Eric Lindros, a physical presence with a deft scoring touch who revives a floundering franchise.
Thornton, whose nickname is “Big Bird” but perhaps now should be the Big Hope, won’t be 18 until next month, but expects to be wearing the Bruins’ No. 6 in October.
“I’ll go back to (juniors) if they want me to, but I want to play in the NHL,” said Thornton, who stood out even on the crowded Civic Arena floor because of his size (6-foot-4) and Mark Fidrych-like curly blond hair.
Thornton, so clearly the top player in a talent-deep draft that the Bruins identified him as their choice weeks ago, was rated as the best player available since Alexandre Daigle in 1993 - and, before that, Lindros in 1991.
Thornton joined Pierre Turgeon as the only 17-year-old selected No.1, and did so on a day filled with firsts.
Roberto Luongo, chosen fourth by the New York Islanders, went higher than any goaltender since the draft began in 1969. And wing Michel Risen became the first Swiss-born first-rounder when Edmonton took him 14th.
There were first-rounders drafted from a record seven countries: Canada, the United States, Finland, Slovakia, Russia, Switzerland and Sweden.
“My goal my entire life has been to play in the NHL,” said Thornton, who played street hockey in St. Thomas, Ontario, with his two older brothers while still wearing diapers. “But there’s no pressure on me - yet. I haven’t even stepped in the Fleet Center yet.”
Once he does, the expectations may be higher for Thornton than any Bruins player since Bobby Orr. Coming off their worst season in 30 years, the Bruins need help.
They could get it not only from Thornton, who had 71 goals and 127 assists in two seasons for Gretzky’s old junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, but the player known as the Russian Gretzky.
The Bruins used the No. 8 pick on 18-year-old wing Sergei Samsonov, the top scorer for the IHL champion Detroit Vipers and perhaps the best offensive player available except for Thornton.