SAN JOSE -- Like any good Canadian kids, the Thornton boys covered their rooms with posters of hockey gods. Their household decor included Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Pat LaFontaine.

The Great One, meanwhile, merited more than a single image -- Wayne Gretzky wallpaper adorned the basement.

"Literally, when I'd go to sleep, I'd dream about those guys," Joe Thornton recalled.

Now grown up into a hockey star himself, the greatest player in Sharks history owns just about every individual accolade the sport has to offer. But he's not done dreaming.

The Stanley Cup -- the only trophy that really matters -- remains elusive, even after 16 years, 1,207 career games, a scoring title and a most valuable player award. Like the Sharks franchise itself, Thornton has mastered regular-season success only to be dogged by early-round playoff exits.

And he's tired of being the poster boy for postseason frustration. As the Sharks gear up for another playoff run, opening a best-of-seven series against the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, the man known as Jumbo is more determined than ever to win The Big One -- and erase his reputation as player who comes up small.

"It's everything. It's everything to Joe," former teammate Jeremy Roenick said of the championship chase. "Nothing else matters."

Thornton is coming off another prolific regular season, finishing second in the NHL in assists and 13th in points. But those who know Thornton best sense a major shift in his game. Coach Todd McLellan said that on the ice, the center takes increased pride in the details -- winning faceoffs, battling hard for pucks along the boards and playing stifling defense against the other team's top offensive center.


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Off the ice, Thornton, a captain since 2010, sets the tone for work ethic, as well as the mood in the dressing room.

"I think he's become a better leader over time. He's a little more patient with the team as a whole and his teammates," McLellan said. He added: "I don't think a scoring title is driving him anymore. I think it's the 'win factor' at the end."

Thornton's career already includes a Hart Memorial Trophy as the game's most valuable player and an Art Ross Trophy as the league's top scorer. He once had back-to-back seasons with 90 assists, a feat accomplished previously only by his childhood roommates, Gretzky and Lemieux.

But the championship remains elusive -- his Cup runneth away.

In a career split between the Boston Bruins and Sharks, Thornton has reached the postseason 13 times. In those series, his teams were bounced out in the first round six times and knocked out in the second round five times.

The two Sharks teams to advance as far as the Western Conference Finals were blasted, losing 4-0 to Chicago in 2010 and 4-1 to Vancouver the following season.

That's why, despite six career All-Star appearances, Thornton has a lingering reputation as an underachiever. The charge is leveled more often in Boston, where he spent five seasons as a young captain and faced scrutiny over his leadership skills.

In fact, the reason the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder was traded to the Sharks in the first place is because Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell concluded that the No. 1 overall pick in 1997 lacked the stuff of a champion.

"I asked myself if Joe Thornton could lead us to the Stanley Cup, and my answer was no," O'Connell told the New England Hockey Journal in 2011, not long after the Bruins won it all. "Do you want to rebuild around a player that has character but not the championship character you're looking for?"

To those inside the Sharks' dressing room now, any slights directed at Thornton seem laughable.

Not tough enough? Center Joe Pavelski pointed to a game against the Kings on April 3, when Thornton sent a message to the potential playoff opponent by punishing everything in sight. The Sharks set a franchise record that night with 52 hits.

"I think you could see it in the LA game: The physical play, offensively. And he wins all the faceoffs he gets," he said.

Not focused enough? McLellan said Thornton sets the tone for the team's work ethic by staying after practice for punishing rides on a stationary bike.

Not team-oriented enough? Though still a prolific passer, he can be just as dangerous away from the puck. "I think he's a two-way guy that can play a real physical game," McLellan said.

Not clutch enough? Roenick, a nine-time All-Star who spent his final two seasons with the Sharks, wrote in his 2012 autobiography that Thornton was "part of the solution in San Jose, not part of the problem."

"I think that's even more true now," Roenick, now an NBC analyst, said in a phone interview last week. "He was getting a reputation as someone who struggled in the playoffs, but I think that's long gone. The last three years are the best I've ever seen him in the playoffs."

Thornton understands the fuss surrounding the quest for the Cup. He grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario, a city of 37,905 where hockey reigns supreme. Thornton, and his older brothers John and Alex, played endless games in the backyard and learned a ferocious competitive fire from their father, Wayne. "He tried to fight you even if was playing Wiffle ball," John said of their dad with a laugh.

John Thornton, who is now a sports agent, said that his little brother was a prodigy by the time he was 3. By the time he was in eighth grade, Joe was already 6 feet tall and had the skills to compete with players several years older.

Joe would easily be the biggest star to come out of the town if not for his high school classmate, actress Rachel McAdams.

He was 18 when the Bruins took him with the No. 1 overall draft pick (one spot before the Sharks nabbed center Patrick Marleau).

After sparse playing time as a rookie, Thornton quickly established himself as a hockey rarity -- a mammoth skater with a silky touch. With his deft passing and on-ice vision, he racked up 96 assists one year and 92 the next, making him the third player in NHL history to record consecutive 90-assist seasons. The only others to do it were from those posters on his bedroom wall: Gretzky and Lemieux.

But Thornton's growth as a leader was harder to quantify. He became the captain before the 2002-03 season, at age 23, a promotion that mostly meant he got extra blame for Boston's playoff failures. Most troubling was the way he vanished in the playoffs. In 2004, the year before the Bruins traded him, Thornton went scoreless in a seven-game playoff series. He spent 151 minutes on the ice without so much as a single goal or assist.

None of the Sharks question whether he is ready to be captain now. He is gregarious and charming -- "a free spirit," as Roenick calls him -- but no one questions his commitment to the game. McLellan loves to see young prospects around the club for the first time. "They all have an eye on Joe Thornton," he said. "When you walk into a room, he's the guy they look for."

Thornton credits a career that has enabled him to study from every great leader he's ever been around, whether it's in the NHL or international play. Lemieux. Rob Blake. Paul Coffey. Dave Andreychuk.

The first captain he ever had in the NHL was Ray Bourque, a defenseman who played 22 seasons (and made 20 trips to the playoffs) before raising the hallowed trophy.

Now, Thornton has allowed himself to envision what it would be like to bring a Stanley Cup to San Jose.

"It would be huge," Thornton said. "It would mean the world to the whole Bay Area. They've been waiting for it a long time. It's something we definitely want to do for the city."

And for yourself?

"That's the only reason you play, is getting a chance to win the Stanley Cup," he said. "As a kid, you dream about it."

Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.