Photo Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Farewell, Chris Thorburn

The number of Jets who’ve been here from the start got smaller last week. Winnipeg lost one of their longest-serving and most recognizable foot soldiers to Unrestricted Free Agency when Chris Thorburn signed a deal with the St. Louis Blues.

Many Jets fans were unabashed in their enthusiasm for Thorburn’s exit. That it came alongside the departures of Ondrej Pavelec and Mark Stuart was cause for even greater celebration in some circles.

As for me, well, I’m going to miss Chris Thorburn.

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Just to be clear, Chris Thorburn the hockey player is someone the Jets are, on the ice, better without. Like all players, Thorburn had a shelf life, and the nature of his style means he reached his far faster than a more skilled player would.

His statistics, both advanced and otherwise, always ranked near the bottom of the Jets’ depth chart. He never put up more than 19 points in a season, and 14 represents his highest total in Winnipeg. Only his penalty minutes stood out, and not all of those were the gritty, fight-based PIMs he’s most commonly associated with. The Jets fourth line will post better numbers without him.

Chris Thorburn the human being, however, is someone the city of Winnipeg will miss.

A Fighter and a Gentleman

Chris Thorburn the human being was one of the best ambassadors the game of hockey could have had. In a city that needed no extra reasons to cheer for the Jets, Thorburn did his best to give you extra reasons to root for him. He was a fixture in the community, the first Jet to be part of a charity event or a community gathering, and one of the most well-liked, down-to-earth athletes on the team, maybe in the entire NHL.

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If you bumped into Thorburn on the street or in a store he was always gracious, polite, and easy to talk to. He knew the Jets were Winnipeg’s newest darlings when they arrived in 2011, and he never seemed to shy away from it. In fact, I’d say he enjoyed the spotlight and interacting with fans.

In the dressing room, Thorburn was a friend to just about everybody. His teammates would tell you he was the most popular man in the room and got along with everyone from shy rookies to seasoned vets. The team was a closer-knit group with him on it.

Flashes of Skill

From my description so far you would think Thorburn’s only uses were in pumping up the team and keeping their spirits up, something he could have accomplished in a suit as easily as in his gear. He was not without his on-ice triumphs, however.

Every now and then Thorburn would display a set of hands and hockey sense that eludes so many other tough guys. His goal against Buffalo in the Jets first season in Winnipeg leaps to mind. It remains one of the nicest goals a Jet has ever scored.

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Years later, he brought back memories of that feat with a beautiful shorthanded goal against Arizona, one that showcased his trademark hustle, strength, and grit as well as the same set of hands that caught Ryan Miller and Robyn Regehr so flat-footed back in 2012.

Thorburn loved the fans and in those moments they loved him back. The MTS Centre, always among the noisiest rinks in the NHL, rose to a fever pitch every time #22 put the biscuit in the basket. It didn’t happen often, but when it did the fans responded with raucous enthusiasm.

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And then there were the fights. Thorburn may have shown better hands with the puck than the average banger and crasher, but he knew how to use them in other ways too. It’s hard to quantify the boost his fights gave the team or the sense of security he gave the team’s stars knowing he was looking over their shoulder, but ask anyone he played with how they felt knowing he had their back.

The security Thorburn provided, and the goals he occasionally scored, were not enough to keep him a Jet, however. The team’s young stars were ready to take the helm of the franchise in full, and Thorburn’s virtues couldn’t mask the fact that the Jets were getting younger and faster. He’ll be providing his sense of security and camaraderie to the St. Louis Blues this year.

As frustrating as Thorburn could be at times, especially when he was in the lineup while promising young talents like Nic Petan were scratched, it will be odd and a little sad to see him don a different sweater in 2017-18.

Into the Future

I’ve maintained that the Manitoba Moose would have been well-served by Thorburn next season. The idea of Thorburn providing for this version of the Moose what Mike Keane brought to the previous version was appealing and seemed likely.

Clearly, the Blues had other ideas and felt Thorburn still had NHL-caliber hockey left in him. Thorburn obviously did too, and now he’s left for a Central Division rival that has a good chance of getting him into some meaningful games this spring.

The argument for keeping Thorburn in Winnipeg has often been that he’s the glue that holds the room together. That theory is about to be tested as this will be the first year the team has had to do without him since arriving in Manitoba. There’s a new dynamic in the room, and the team is wildly different from the one True North Sports & Entertainment purchased in May of 2011. Now if ever was the time to let someone new take over the room.

Like most, I feel Thorburn reached the point some time ago where he was better serving the team in the room than on the ice, and his ice time was biting into that of skilled youngsters who would have made the team better. It was time for he and the Jets to part ways, and do so on good terms.

Still, I can’t help but remember the reasons so many fans defended Thorburn so staunchly for so long, right up until the end in some cases, and be a little sorry to see him go. I wish the best for him in St. Louis.

Winnipeg lost a hockey player they can easily replace, but a person they won’t soon forget. And who knows? Maybe when his time with the Blues is up he’ll do as Keane did and return to the Moose.

It would be a fitting homecoming for a player who made himself such a big part of the identity of the Jets.