NO. 5

Thornson dominated IHL with Komets

By BLAKE SEBRING of The News-Sentinel

If Len Thornson were playing hockey today he'd be a millionaire. He'd also probably never have heard of Fort Wayne.

When Thornson played hockey in the 1950s and 1960s, there were only six National Hockey League teams, and getting a cup of coffee in "The Apple" was reason to bring out the fine china. It just didn't happen that often.

Thornson spent 13 seasons with the Komets in the International Hockey League, winning seven MVP awards, three scoring titles and scoring 426 goals and 1,252 points in 819 games.

And he never once got a call-up to the NHL. The Montreal Canadiens were dominating the NHL at that time, and they owned Thornson's rights throughout his career. If he had been born 30 years later, it's conceivable that Thornson would have been at worst a second-liner on most NHL teams today, a first-liner on some.

But that never seemed to bother Thornson. He was a hit in Fort Wayne, and that's all that mattered. Now 30 years after retiring, the Winnipeg native of Icelandic immigrants still makes his home in Fort Wayne with winter jaunts to Fort Myers, Fla.

The only thing bigger than Thornson's list of records is his modesty.

Shortly after The Hockey News named Thornson as the IHL's all-time greatest player -- in October 1997 -- the Komets honored him during an intermission of a game, presenting him with a plaque. Thornson's cheeks were as red as his hair used to be when the Memorial Coliseum crowd gave him a standing ovation.

Though he retired in 1969, Thornson still holds the hearts of Komets fans and a handful of the IHL's most prestigious records, including the all-time scoring record of 1,382 points. He used a combination of deft playmaking and a sixth sense around the goal to finish among the league's top 10 scorers 11 straight seasons, including nine in the top five.

"He brought up the level of the league," former longtime Komets owner and coach Ken Ullyot said. "His talent was on display every game because he played hard. The challenge to opponents was to stop him, and they couldn't."

What's scary is that Thornson's records might be untouchable if his career hadn't ended at age 35 because of an eye injury. Cleveland center Jock Callander recently topped Thornson's career scoring mark after playing two more seasons than Thornson at age 38.

"The records are something you never dream or think about as a player, but they mean more now," Thornson said. "I get a little embarrassed about them because they happened so long ago. What's funny is if I'd gone to the NHL, they'd never be there."

There are no regrets about not playing in the NHL, Thornson says, but sometimes he must wonder. Why not at least one NHL game?

"When one or two spots opened up every year, I was one of 150 guys trying out," Thornson said.

Which meant Thornson stayed behind in the minors with Fort Wayne. The Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups during Thornson's 13 seasons in Fort Wayne. It was a dynasty the IHL's best player couldn't crack.

"I remember one year when they lost six games in a row," Thornson said. "I was hoping I'd be the next man to get a chance, but it never happened. You really needed to be traded from them to move up."

Also preventing Thornson was a less than graceful skating stride and his nonaggressive nature. He had just 101 penalty minutes in 13 IHL seasons.

"If I had been transferred or traded I might have been able to play, but my post-hockey years turned out to be so fabulous that as I look back, there's nothing I want to change."

Thornson stayed in Fort Wayne, raising a family of three sons and playing for the Komets until November 1968. During a faceoff, an opponent's stick came up and clipped him, blinding him legally in one eye.

State Farm Insurance representative Jack Hayes read about the injury in The News-Sentinel and visited Thornson soon after to offer him a job. Eventually, Thornson opened his own agency and moved into management with the company before retiring in 1995.

Thornson and his wife of 44 years, Margaret, live in Fort Wayne and spend three months a year in Fort Myers, and the rest of their time spoiling eight grandchildren.

He watches about 30 Komets games a year, and also sometimes attends practices.

"There are a lot of friendships that are maintained and we see each other all the time," Thornson said. "We met a lot of real nice people here, and we had real good job opportunities."

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