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Thornton was drafted in the first round, third overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. He also played left wing for the Edmonton Oilers, Montréal Canadiens, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks. In his first season with San Jose, he had a career year, scoring twenty goals playing alongside gritty centre Mike Ricci. He signed a two-year contract extension in the 2003/04 season. The first season of the extension coincided with the 2004/05 NHL lockout, and after the second year, Thornton became an unrestricted free agent and on July 1, 2006, he signed a 2 year contract with the Los Angeles Kings. Thornton announced his retirement on July 28, 2008.