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‘The ultimate pro’: Panthers’ Shawn Thornton faces his final game

In this Oct. 30, 2015, file photo, Florida Panthers forward Shawn Thornton skates prior to an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, in Sunrise, Fla. For Panthers enforcer Shawn Thornton, getting to the NHL was not easy. Neither is leaving. The final game of Thornton's 20-year pro career – the first half basically spent in the minors before he finally got to the NHL on a permanent basis – comes Saturday night, April 8, 2017. (Joel Auerbach / Associated Press)
In this Oct. 30, 2015, file photo, Florida Panthers forward Shawn Thornton skates prior to an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, in Sunrise, Fla. For Panthers enforcer Shawn Thornton, getting to the NHL was not easy. Neither is leaving. The final game of Thornton's 20-year pro career – the first half basically spent in the minors before he finally got to the NHL on a permanent basis – comes Saturday night, April 8, 2017. (Joel Auerbach / Associated Press)
By Tim Reynolds Associated Press

SUNRISE, Fla. – For Shawn Thornton, getting to the NHL was not easy.

Same goes for leaving.

The last game of Thornton’s 20-year pro career – the first half spent grinding in the minors before he got to the NHL for good – comes Saturday night, when he and the Florida Panthers play host to the Buffalo Sabres. The Panthers play their season finale Sunday in Washington, and Thornton isn’t making the trip.

He’s going out on his terms, on home ice, with a tall glass of celebratory scotch in his postgame plans.

“A lot of years, a lot of punches in the face, a lot of miles on the bus,” Thornton said. “But then a lot of charter flights, a lot of filets on those charter flights. It’s the best job in the world.”

And now it’s ending.

He is one of two players to play more than 600 games in the American Hockey League and at least 700 games in the National Hockey League. The first was Jim Morrison, who logged 704 NHL games in a career that ended in the early 1970s.

Thornton’s last game will be his 705th.

“It’s been a good run,” Thornton said.

He’ll get a bit of a break after the season but he’s staying with the Panthers, in a somewhat still-to-be-determined capacity on the business side of the operation working with team president Matthew Caldwell. Thornton considered trading his skates for suits last year when he was weighing an offer to return to Boston – where he won one of his two Stanley Cups – and work in television and community relations.

Florida interim coach Tom Rowe raves about Thornton and knows the end of his playing days is an emotional time. Rowe paid tribute last week when he sent Thornton out for the opening shift in Boston so he could hear an ovation from Bruins’ fans one final time.

“I think he’ll be great,” Rowe said when asked about Thornton’s looming transition to front-office life. “The thing that’s impressed me the most about him is how intelligent he is. He’s a very, very smart guy and he’s got a real passion for business and I think he’s going to pick it up quickly.”

Thornton’s career was not a glamorous one, with far more fights than goals. Drafted 190th overall in 1997, he was a fourth-line guy, an enforcer, someone whose job it was to protect his teammates by any means necessary.

He never scored more than two goals in a game, never even had more than two points in a game. Thornton’s first fight came in his second NHL contest, and he once told an opponent – while trying to bait him into a fight – that he could pick which hand to punch with.

“He’s the epitome of a hockey player,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said.

But off the ice, Thornton is a mild-mannered sort. He started a foundation that works with people affected by cancer and Parkinson’s disease, and is someone who was humbled by being nominated again this year for the Masterson Award that honors the player who best combines perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

“Definitely no complaints,” Thornton said. “I tried to give back when I could. Hopefully when it’s all said and done I’m remembered more for than the antics on the ice, because that was just a job.”

His next job awaits.

His parents and some close friends are coming in for Saturday night’s finale, and that glass of scotch – a bottle he’s been saving for a couple years – awaits afterward.

It’ll be a toast to a career well done. “Saying he’s been a heart and soul guy, even that does him an injustice,” Panthers goaltender James Reimer said. “He’s beyond that. His whole career, he’s played the game the right way. He’s battled hard, he’s fought hard, he’s stuck up for his teammates. He’s just been the ultimate pro, the ultimate teammate.”

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