For a player who was selected outside the first round, Milan Lucic attended his first National Hockey League training camp in 2007 with a fair bit of notoriety.
Chosen in the second round (50th overall by the Boston Bruins) of the draft a year prior, the Vancouverite was fresh off a Memorial Cup victory (and MVP honours) for his hometown Giants in front of friends and family at the Pacific Coliseum.
Nearly 15 years later, “The Shift” as it came to be known, remains part of junior hockey lore. In a 55-second sequence in the championship game’s opening minutes, Lucic levelled several Medicine Hat Tigers with bone-crunching hits before getting into a fight, setting the tone in a 3-1 Giants’ win.
Bruins forward Shawn Thornton hadn’t gotten the memo. He hadn’t followed junior hockey and didn’t know much about the 19-year-old winger beyond the fact that Bruins scouts were high on him and that Lucic had fought a couple of players at rookie camp.
“I didn’t know much about Looch or ‘The Shift’ or anything,” Thornton said in a recent interview with TSN. “I didn’t even know he’d won the Memorial Cup the year before to be completely honest.”
Thornton, then 30 and in his first of seven seasons in Boston, quickly took a liking to the young power forward. Lucic impressed his new teammate with a couple of bouts at training camp.
“He worked his ass off and made his way onto that team,” Thornton said.
The two would become linemates for the first half of the season.
“One day he got bumped up for his hard work to play with [David] Krejci and got a little power-play time,” Thornton said. “I don’t think he ever went back.”
Thornton and Lucic bonded off the ice that season and remain close friends to this day.
“For his first few years, he was at my house for dinner after almost every game, and holidays and what not he’d be at our house too,” Thornton said.
Thornton saw a part of himself in Lucic – a young agitator willing to do whatever it took to maximize his professional hockey career. They were both relentless, willing to fight, and determined to win the Stanley Cup.
“You try and mentor him, knowing that he’ll have a bigger role than I would ever have in the sport of hockey,” Thornton said. “And knowing that he’s going to have to do some of the stuff that I did. It’s the toughest part of the job, getting punched in the face. But he always had a very high IQ and EQ for that part of the game. So, it was more just teaching him my thought process on it and how I’d approach it; just giving how I navigate those waters. He had a really good feel for it even as a 19-year-old kid.”
Thornton’s prediction proved prophetic. In Boston, Lucic would become a staple of the team’s scoring lines, racking up 342 points in 566 games. His 772 penalty minutes rank 17th in franchise history.
Thornton and Lucic spent seven seasons together with the Bruins, winning the Stanley Cup in 2011.
“When we were challenged, he took that challenge personally, whether that’s a physical challenge or a fight or someone taking a run at him,” Thornton said. “And he was not going to lose that challenge. If we’re losing a game, he’d challenge his linemates to put the team on their back and try and win the game for the team.”
Fourteen years since removed from being that wide-eyed, quiet 19-year-old at his first NHL training camp and now a Calgary Flame, Lucic will suit up for his 1,000th career game on Tuesday in Toronto.
His mentor and friend Thornton will be watching from Florida, where he is working as the Panthers’ chief commercial officer.
“The way he plays the game makes it even more impressive,” Thornton said. “He plays the game a hard way. He puts his body out there, he sacrifices his body. He’s fought all the big boys. He is in front of the net. He plays a heavy, hard game, and to get 1,000 that way is, in my opinion, a pretty remarkable feat.”