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Joe Thornton: a Big Bird who flies on ice

June 20, 1997 GMT

BOSTON (AP) _ He is tall with long, flowing blond locks, a knack for scoring and an aggressiveness any hockey coach would love. The Boston Bruins’ best hope for the future is a cross between Big Bird and Eric Lindros.

He is Joe Thornton and, early Saturday afternoon, the team with the NHL’s worst record plans to call his name as the top choice in the league’s draft.

``The worst you’re going to get is a second-line center, a top, top player,″ Bruins assistant general manager Mike O’Connell says. ``That’s excellent.″

Especially for a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in 30 years, a team that lost reliable veterans Cam Neely, Adam Oates and Rick Tocchet and replaced them with unproven youngsters.

It might be too much for Thornton, who doesn’t turn 18 until 11 days after the draft, to lead an immediate turnaround. Not even Lindros did that.

Lindros didn’t get the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals until his fifth season, but Thornton is considered by many scouts the top prospect since Lindros was drafted in 1991.

The similarities don’t end there.

Both are 6-foot-4 centers and team leaders. They play with intensity, as adept at delivering a hard check as sending the puck into the net.

``He’s got an interesting look about him,″ O’Connell said of the affable Thornton.

The Bruins’ hopes of signing Thornton before the draft, to be held in Pittsburgh, have faded. Unlike Lindros, who didn’t want to play for Quebec after it drafted him, Thornton has shown no reluctance to play in Boston. And there are no indications the negotiations will be contentious.

Neely’s retirement before last season and the trade of Oates and Tocchet to Washington last March left the Bruins with a very young team that would become younger with Thornton. Only one No. 1 pick since 1969, Pierre Turgeon in 1987, was younger than 18 when he was drafted.

``The first order of business Joe Thornton has to do is sign his contract, which he could probably do any day now″ if he accepts the Bruins offer, O’Connell said. ``Then he has to gain the respect of his teammates.

``He’s got to prove to his teammates that he belongs. Sometimes it takes a while for people to do that, but I’ve seen people do that on the first shift, too.″

Only two of the last six No. 1 picks played in the NHL the following season, but O’Connell said he’ll be surprised if Thornton doesn’t.

Thornton’s offensive production improved dramatically last season, his second with Sault Ste. Marie of the Ontario Hockey League. His goals increased from 30 to 41, his assists from 46 to 81 and he played seven fewer games.

``I just got more ice time and got a little bit more mature and played with better players,″ Thornton said.

``We were the worst team in the league last year, but the year before we weren’t,″ O’Connell said. ``We fell pretty hard last year. Were we that bad? I tend to think not.″

The Bruins also have the eighth pick in the draft from a trade with Hartford. O’Connell has talked to other teams about trading it for a higher or lower pick but if there is a deal, he doesn’t expect one until draft day.

``Having two picks in the first round, you can draft for position a little more,″ he said.

In 1995, the Bruins took Kyle McLaren with the ninth choice and he stepped right in as a solid defenseman. In 1996, they chose Jonathan Aitken with the eighth pick, and he could be a regular defenseman next season.

On Saturday, the prize is even more valuable.

``We’d like Joe Thornton to score for us. We’d like him to set up guys,″ O’Connell said, ``but I think the thing we’d like him to do the most for us is help us win.″