Students learn leadership, life lessons from hockey great Shawn Thornton

April 9, 2024
Students poses with hockey player Shawn Thornton
Shawn Thornton is interviewed at Weston auditorium
Shawn Thornton, at far right, discusses his career with student interviewers (from left) Trenton Skaggs, Samuel Rennick and Toivo Kramer.

When two-time Stanley Cup-winning hockey player Shawn Thornton was invited to campus this spring to discuss his grueling journey to the pinnacle of the National Hockey League, three members of the Fitchburg State Falcons ice hockey team were thrilled to be selected to moderate the discussion.

Toivo Kramer, a junior studying economics; Samuel Rennick, a junior studying construction management; and Trenton Skaggs, a sophomore studying business administration, found themselves at first starstruck by their famous guest, but quickly grew comfortable with the “normal guy” they found themselves meeting. (See more photos from the event on the university's Burg Blog.)

Thornton’s talk at Weston Auditorium was preceded by a dinner with members of the hockey team and student ambassadors from the School of Health and Natural Sciences and the School of Business and Technology. The three moderators are also part of the student ambassador group.

“Meeting Shawn Thornton was, first of all, extremely inspiring,” said Kramer. “It was very nice to meet someone who has achieved so much, and is royalty in Boston, not only be so humble but just a pleasure to be around. He was very down to earth and just a normal guy.”

Rennick, who grew up a fan of the Bruins (and all Boston sports teams), said it was Thornton’s willingness to share credit for his success that struck a nerve.

“His stories were cool to hear, but the one part that stood out to me was his grandmother's importance in his life,” Rennick said. “He talked about how after games or fights she’d be on the side waiting to congratulate him and slide him $20. Now this story may not have been the one that stood out to everyone, but for me, it hit home. I’ve been playing hockey at Fitchburg State for three years now and my grandmother is by far my biggest fan. She’d show up and watch me play and she’d even come sit next to me in the stands while I was scratched and watch the team play. I bring this up because Shawn had a dream of playing hockey, but he never once took credit for his success.”

Instead, Rennick continued, he was impressed with how Thornton credited his wife for helping him get his life on track, as well as his grandmother. “Meeting Shawn Thornton the Bruin was absolutely incredible, but meeting Shawn Thornton the person was something I won’t take for granted. I want to thank (Dean of Health and Natural Sciences and Dean of Business and Technology) Jennifer Hanselman for the opportunity she gave us all.” 

“It was truly an honor and privilege to be able to meet and talk to Shawn Thornton, whose upbringing and personal achievements I once dreamt of when I was a kid,” said Skaggs. “To hear his stories of adversity and perseverance, whether in business or his hockey career, was truly inspiring and motivational as I head into the next chapter of my life."

Smiling Shawn Thornton answering questions
Shawn Thornton recently authored a memoir about his experiences in professional hockey, and is also president and director of The Shawn Thornton Foundation that he created to help find cures for diseases close to his heart, specifically Parkinson's and cancer.

Thornton answered students’ questions with candor and good humor, talking about his role as an enforcer on the ice and the all important willingness to put in the work to perform at a high level over his 20-year career. 

Upon getting called up to the NHL after playing 600 games in the minors, Thornton recalled being exhausted by workouts and practice. “I’d literally just tell myself, you can go back to the minors, or you can be tired.”

He was also quick to credit good luck with playing a role in his journey. “My dream was to play in the NHL and hold a Stanley Cup over my head,” he said. “It was never a goal.”  

Thornton ultimately became the only player in professional hockey history to begin his career after expansion and play in over 700 NHL games and 600 American Hockey League games. He is the only player this century to record 10 fights, score 10 goals and win the Stanley Cup in the same season.

The students valued the life lessons Thornton shared. 

“I understand that I will not play in the NHL, but his message of hard work and discipline to reach your goals is what inspired me,” said Kramer. “You only get to live this life once, so why not work as hard as you can and try to achieve your dreams and goals. If you don't succeed, as long as you try your hardest you can walk away knowing you did the best you can.”

“This experience with Shawn was awesome, but I think the biggest thing I took from this is to appreciate life, the grind it takes, and never give up,” said Rennick. “It made me appreciate where I am a lot more. Not that I don’t already appreciate playing hockey here, but sometimes we take these days in college for granted. We don’t realize we are living somebody’s dream, whether it's our own or the younger kids who come to watch us play. It’s really just lit a fire inside of me to be completely honest. I want to be better and more hard-working after our interaction with Shawn.”

“His comments on working hard and fighting his way through adversity really resonated with my own experiences, because the world is so competitive that he emphasized the mindset and the determination that is required to compete and perform at a high level,” Skaggs said. “He mentioned talking about the 2011 Bruins that everyone found their niche or role on the team, which is critical for a successful organization because everyone contributes their skill level in order to pursue their ultimate goal. Some of the takeaways from our conversation is that no matter what you are going into whether sports, business, or life in general, hard work and learning never stops. Being able to capitalize on opportunities and make the most of your time will help contribute to your success as a person and a businessman.”