I’ve always been able to fight. And I’ve been in some big ones, like real gloves-off, jersey-tuggin’, fist-throwin’ scraps.
I was taught that you protect those who may not be in the best position to protect themselves. I learned that from my grandmother.
Even when I was in juniors over 20 years ago, I used to drop the gloves quite a bit. And the thing about fights in junior hockey is that the crowds there are so much smaller, and some people get real quiet — so you can hear every “ohh” and “ahh” throughout the arena.
Or, if you had a grandmother like mine at your games, you’d hear this:
“F****** kill him, Shawn! Get him!”
That was Nanny.
Saying she was a character is an understatement. The old Irish Queen, that’s what we used to call her. She was born in Belfast and she came over to Canada with her family. But her Irish never left her. She was the type of lady to give me a swig of whiskey when I was underage on St. Patrick’s Day, or sneak me a $20 dollar bill to go have fun with my friends after a juniors game. Her name was Maureen, and she was quick-witted and didn’t take s*** from anybody.
When I won the Cup in 2007 with Anaheim, Nanny was in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease and was living in an assisted-living home in Oshawa, Ontario, my family’s hometown. On my day with the Cup I brought it to her home and, of course, the first thing she wanted to do was have a drink out of it.
“Nanny … your medication. It’s probably not a good idea,” I said.
“Oh c’mon,” she fired back, “Just real quick — nobody will see.”
I didn’t budge. But I did help her raise the Cup over her head. It was one of the best days of my life. When I think back on it, though, I remember how hard it was to see her struggling like that. She was a hero to me. And your heroes aren’t supposed to get hurt.
When I was breaking into the AHL in 1997 with St. John’s, Newfoundland, the younger players on the team were required to go to the local children’s hospital quite a few times a year. I was just beginning my career, and I wasn’t concerned with much else outside of hockey and my circle of friends. I sort of dreaded that first time going to the hospital. What am I supposed to say to these kids?
The first time I went the players were split up and sent to different wings of the hospital to visit groups of kids. And I remember getting to the room I was assigned to and being struck by the illnesses and diseases these children were facing. I didn’t think I’d be able to smile and be the person these kids wanted me to be.
But as soon as they saw me, their faces just lit up. And they were asking me all sorts of questions about hockey and sports and they were just so … full of life.
She was a hero to me. And your heroes aren’t supposed to get hurt.
And I realized right then that I didn’t have to put on a brave face to cheer these kids up. They were doing that for me. Here are these kids, going through hell and back just to see the next day, and they’re the ones smiling and laughing. All the problems I had in my life, or things I was going through, became so trivial.
After that day, I promised myself — no matter where I went — to connect with kids like that as often as I could. Every couple of weeks I went back to that hospital in St. John’s on my own and began to get know as many of them as possible. I think in some selfish way it was helping me just as much as it was helping them.
I played some 600 AHL games before I became a regular in the NHL. It’s a real grind to be in the minors for so long. And if I never have to ride another bus again, I think I’ll be O.K. Doing that for so many years, never knowing if you’ll ever realize your dream of being an NHL player, it can make you go a little crazy. So those trips to see the kids in the hospital were a salvation for me.
Now, as a father, I can see my daughter in the faces of the children I’ve visited, and I know how strong these kids must be every day. I used to think when I was seeing them, O.K., we’re going through things in our lives, but yours are incomparably worse than mine. So let’s forget about those things today and just be friends and have fun.
I made countless trips to hospitals during my playing career and have actually been able to make more visits since retiring from the NHL. I know what to expect when I head into a room to see someone who’s fighting for his or her life. But in 2008, when Nanny’s Parkinson’s got worse, nothing I’d ever seen had really prepared me for that.
She wasn’t a kid excited to meet a hockey player, she was a proud woman who was beside herself that she was in the state she was. Her voice was gone, and she was shaking so bad her arm was banging against the bed. But she kept a positive attitude and did her best to let me know she was going to be O.K. But everything I knew about being around someone who was sick sort of went out the window. When it’s your own flesh and blood who’s suffering … it’s different.
In my hockey career, I’ve always been the tough guy. When people think of you like that for so long, you in a way become one. But in Nanny’s room in Oshawa, I had never felt weaker in my life.
When Nanny passed a few months later in 2008, I was playing for the Bruins. I went to the team after I got back from her funeral, and we began trying to figure out a way to give back. Cam Neely, Bob Sweeney, Erin McEvoy and the entire organization did so much to help — including letting me have two days with the Cup in 2010 to help raise funds to donate to Parkinson’s research in Ontario — and I’ll be forever grateful to them. They embody the spirit of Boston so well, and I’m incredibly proud to have lived and played there.
After that day, I promised myself — no matter where I went — to connect with kids like that as often as I could.
I want to tell a quick story about the people of Boston.
In the summer of 2010, I was working with the Bruins to try to get a golf tournament together to support organizations fighting Parkinson’s Disease, like the American Parkinson’s Disease Association. And eventually, The Shawn Thornton Foundation, which we set up in 2012.
Getting the tournament off the ground was tough. I was going door to door in Charlestown, where I lived, asking people I knew, or local restaurant owners, if they wanted to play in my golf tournament. I wasn’t sure how much I was charging, and in hindsight I probably wasn’t prepared enough to be doing that. (It did have a catchy name, though: Putts and Punches.) But I loved Charlestown and thought it was worth a shot.
Toward the end of the day, I got to a coffee shop I knew pretty well and met with the owner, John. I explained what we were trying to do and that I wasn’t sure exactly how much we were charging. And before I could finish my sentence, he reached down and pulled out a check.
“Here, take this. Write down however much you need and I’ll be there,” he said. “The city of Boston needs more guys like you.”
He didn’t know it, but I was thinking the exact same thing about him.
John was the first person to ever give me a check, and if you ever get a chance, visit Zume’s on Main Street.
That first tournament in 2010 we only raised around $17,000, but it was a start.
This past summer, Putts and Punches raised $160,000.
We’ve had local athletes — from Bobby Orr to Jason Varitek — come out and play in the event over the past eight years. It’s been one of the most humbling and rewarding endeavors of my career. It’s a testament to the people, and athletes, of the city of Boston that we’re able to raise the money we can and support such a great cause.
If Nanny were still here to see the tournament, she’d be sitting on the porch just off the 18th hole, sipping on something, cracking jokes and heckling the bad putters. And every year when we finish playing, I wish she was there. But she was taken too soon, by a disease that slowly and painfully degrades the quality life for its victims.
That’s why Putts and Punches and my foundation matter so much to me, and why I wanted to write this. Our goal is simple: To support education programs and health and wellness activities that facilitate a better quality of life for patients battling Parkinson’s and their families. It’s an all-volunteer effort and not one penny is spent on salaries, because we know that one-on-one support for patients isn’t as readily available as it should be. I hope, if just a bit, we’re able to help change that.
And if anyone asks you where Shawn Thornton learned to fight, tell ’em my nanny taught me.