SAN JOSE — There may be a few hundred hockey-wise people out there who grasped the significance of it, but the Bay Area at large still doesn't really have a clue just how colossal an acquisition the San Jose Sharks made last week when they traded for Boston center Joe Thornton.

At least as it would rank within the respective sports, nabbing Thornton is bigger than the Raiders' swap for Randy Moss or the Warriors' deal for Baron Davis. Suffice it to say the A's couldn't acquire a comparably young impact right-handed stick unless they traded for Albert Pujols.

Thornton not only is a former No. 1 NHL draft pick, he was 1997's version of Sidney Crosby, one of those special No. 1 picks that comes along only once every several years. He's still only 26 years old, too. Even as a perceived underachiever in New England, his offensive numbers blink like a red neon sign.

"Right now he's eighth in the league in scoring, and he's supposed to be awful, from all the reports you read out of Boston," said coach Ron Wilson on Monday as his team prepared for Thornton's home Sharks debut tonight against Atlanta.

If you asked just about any hockey expert to name the half-dozen most physically gifted players in the sport, Thornton would probably make most of those experts' lists. "Jumbo Joe" was one of the most recognizable faces on the New England sports scene. He admitted Monday after working out at Logitech Ice Arena he could never go out in public without gettingmobbed. And forget Canada, where he is one of the most celebrated players on their national team and could be a key figure on their 2006 Olympic squad.

"I don't know if this franchise has ever had a player who has been viewed by others the way Joe is," Wilson said. "It'll have a nice effect on our team and bring a little more attention to us here."

Sorry, Ron, significantly more attention won't be coming here, even after Thornton immediately helped the Sharks to two wins following 10 straight pre-trade defeats. But that's OK. It may or may not be a good thing that most sports fans in these parts wouldn't know Joe Thornton from Billy Bob or Big Mama Thornton. He can be a superstar in relative peace and not be placed under the daily strobe light of scrutiny like he was in the ultra-analytical Boston area.

"Hopefully, it's going to be a nice change, and I can go about my business without anybody knowing who I am," Thornton said. "It's a new chapter in my life. All I can say is the first two days I've been here I woke up and the sun was shining. So I'm happy to be a Shark."

Thornton went out Sunday night with defenseman Scott Hannan to a South Bay steak restaurant and moved about in relative anonymity. Most of the Sharks can do that, even those who have played here for years. People love their hockey in San Jose, but it's not an organized religion as it is in the East or Canada, where extremists can make daily existence difficult.

"I know when Teemu (Selanne) came here, that was one of the things he really liked, that he could basically walk around and go to the mall with his family and not have to worry about that stuff," said Thornton's cousin and linemate, Scott Thornton. "I think Joe's going to like that, too."

Wilson sees both sides of how outside attention can potentially affect a star NHL player.

"Oh sure, you get recognized here but not in the same way," the coach said. "That glare you get in so-called hockey cities sometimes makes you a better player. You can't ever run away and hide or shirk your responsibilities. Sometimes I wish we had a little bit more of that here because it hardens you. It's like tempering the steel if you want to call it that.

"But that pounding, pounding, pounding can drive you crazy, too, because you can't ever escape it," Wilson continued. "In today's world, it sometimes gets so out of whack with the Internet and all. Anyone who has an opinion can express it and the people who make them never have to face you. Those opinions then explode out of control. I don't think he's going to have to face any of that here."

Indeed, while the Thornton deal continues to be the raging topic on Boston radio sports talk shows, people here would rather debate Alex Smith or Norv Turner or Barry Bonds. What's amazing is that people simply have no concept of what's landed in their laps. Players like Thornton just don't get traded very often ... in any sport.

"I didn't expect Joe would ever get traded," said Scott Thornton. "I thought he'd be a Bruin for life. You get a player of that caliber who is also a good person and a good leader, you just figure there's no way he'd ever get traded. But I guess if Gretzky can get dealt then anybody can."

You wonder if even The Great One would have gotten a rise out of the Bay Area, at least outside of San Jose. Maybe, if Thornton can lead the Sharks to a Stanley Cup, he can change all that.

But if he doesn't, nobody will be wanting to nail him to a cross. That "honor" is reserved for quarterbacks and cleanup hitters in this neck of the woods.

Carl Steward can be reached at (510) 293-2451 or by e-mail at

csteward@angnewspapers.com.