Even hockey enforcers have to put in their gym time if they're going to stay on top of their game.
A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton has long since earned his spot among hockey's best pound-for-pound fighters. And from his regular training in the sweet science to his jiu-jitsu work with former UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian, Thornton says NHL fighters are looking for any edge to keep their skills sharp.
Speaking over the telephone following a workout with noted Boston boxing trainer Tommy McInerney, Thornton explained his approach. "I've been taking boxing lessons since I was in the minor leagues," Thornton said. "Maybe the average fan doesn't think we do, but yeah, you've got to actually learn how to throw a punch if you're going to scrap in the NHL."
Thornton's one of several mixed martial arts fans on the Bruins, whose ranks including forward Milan Lucic and defenseman Zdeno Chara, whose father, Zdenek, was an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler for Czechoslovakia in 1976.
"UFC's kind of our get together night," Thornton said. "After the Stanley Cup we wanted to get the guys together in private and just hang out, so everyone came over to my place to watch the fights and have a few beers. Even the guys who aren't big fans were still glued to the fights."
Given all this, it was only natural for Thornton to give MMA-related training a whirl. Thornton had already struck up a friendship with Florian, who wore Thornton's jersey during the weigh-ins for his UFC 131 fight with Diego Nunes in Vancouver, which was held during the Bruins' 2011 Stanley Cup Finals series against the Canucks.
During last season's NHL lockout, Thornton kept in shape by training jiu-jitsu extensively at Florian's Boston-area gym.
"I noticed a difference," Thornton said. "Obviously there's a huge difference between a hockey fight which goes about a minute and is almost all standing. But last year [on the ice], the difference in my grip strength in the clinch before and after doing all that grappling was like night and day."
Thornton isn't training jiu-jitsu this summer -- anyone who saw the physically punishing Stanley Cup final between the Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks would understand why he's taking a rest -- but Thornton will use his UFC connections for a charity fundraiser on Wednesday night in Boston. Thornton, UFC president Dana White, and UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin will host "UFC Homecoming" at Boston's Barrio Cantina, an event which will raise money for the Shawn Thornton Foundation.
The foundation was established to raise money for the research and treatment of Parkinson's disease. Thornton established the foundation after the passing of his grandmother, who suffered from the disability for 14 years.
"It's such a terrible, terrible disease," Thornton said. "My grandmother fought it as well as she could, but it was just so bad watching what she went through. I had to do something about it. These guys from the UFC, they don't really get enough credit for how much charitable work they do. They've got a busy week and they're making the time to come out and do it. It's going to be a fun night."
Whether you're a Shawn Thornton fan -- or whether you'd rather see someone from your favorite team win a fight with anyone wearing black and gold -- this is a worthy cause. If you'd like more information on how to give to the Shawn Thornton Foundation and help raise money to fight Parkinson's, check out the event's home page.