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HOCKEY

An outlier from the outset, Anchorage’s Nate Thompson retires after an unlikely and remarkable NHL career

by | Jul 21, 2023 | Cover Story, Hockey

Nate Thompson

Nate Thompson was an outlier from the outset, and yet he forged an NHL career that was as unlikely as it was remarkable.

As a 16-year-old, the Anchorage native chose to play Tier I major-junior hockey rather than take a Tier II junior route that would maintain his eligibility to play U.S. college hockey. At the time, 2001, major-junior was a path most Alaskan prospects avoided, and it was a level of hockey that did not get much love from the strongest voices in Alaska pucks, particularly when a marginal prospect chose that journey.

At 18, Thompson was selected in the NHL Draft, sure, but way down in the sixth round, 183rd overall, territory where getting picked ended up the biggest career highlight on a rink resume. (For perspective, only nine of 30 players picked in the sixth round in 2003 played so much as a single NHL game).

Nor was Thompson, a left-shooting center, a notably prolific scorer in four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League.

Even after turning pro entering his 21-year-old season, Thompson faced hurdles aplenty. He played two full seasons in Providence of the American Hockey League before the Bruins summoned him for a four-game sniff in The Show. Even then, he played a third full season in the AHL before he became an NHL regular with the New York Islanders in his 24-year-old season.

And now here he sits, 38, universally lauded by former teammates after he this week announced his retirement following a professional career that spanned nearly 20 years and included 844 regular-season NHL games and another 86 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“It was a helluva run,’’ Thompson said over the phone from his home in the Los Angeles area earlier this week. “I’ve done a lot of reflecting. There were ups and downs. That’s life. But it’s been a helluva ride.

“Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Has this really been my life for 20 years.’ ’’

Thompson reached this remarkable point because he treated doubters as fuel – he was a guy with a boulder on his shoulder – and he did not harbor any illusions about who he was. He was not a star, not even close, but instead a guy who found his place in the NHL by doing enough little things well – winning face-offs, killing penalties, standing up for teammates.

It is so very Nate Thompson that when he identifies a turning point that helped propel him into the NHL, it came in the early 2000s in an AHL road rink in Hartford under former Alaska Aces head coach Rob Murray, then bench boss in Providence.

“Murr didn’t tell me to fight, but he challenged me,’’ Thompson recalled. “The shift before a guy hit me and I really didn’t do much of anything. Murr lit into me. I lost it on him and the next shift I went out and fought.

“We hashed it out at practice the next day, it was all good. I think he was just trying to get me to play the right way and do the things that he thought could get me to the NHL.’’

Murray, like Thompson, was an under-skilled center (at the NHL level) who was good in the face-off circle, killed penalties, protected teammates and worked relentlessly. It’s not hard to imagine Murray saw a lot of himself in Thompson.

Thompson credits Murray and Providence staffer Scott Gordon as two enormous influences. They constantly preached that Thompson could craft a career if he consistently did small things that coaches and teammates know are pivotal, but not glorified.

“If I have different coaches, if it’s handled a different way, maybe I don’t have the career I did,’’ Thompson said. “They saw something in me, they helped me. They were straight-up honest with me.’’

And so was launched a career that included two trips to the conference finals, nine different NHL teams and a lifetime of memories. Thompson’s 844 NHL regular-season games (with 65-99—164 scoring totals and a career face-off percentage of 52.9 percent) sits second all-time among Alaskans, behind only first-round draft pick Scotty Gomez of Anchorage (1,079 games), the best, most accomplished player in state history.

(Gomez and Thompson played for Murray and the Alaska Aces during the 2012-13 NHL lockout. Also, Thompson noted upon Gomez’s retirement that Gomez once gave him face-off advice during an NHL game — while the two were getting ready to contest a face-off.)

Thompson played 15 full NHL seasons, and he closed his career with an AHL campaign with the Ontario Reign, the affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings, one of Thompson’s nine NHL clubs. (The tally – Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Ottawa Senators, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, Philadelphia Flyers and Winnipeg Jets).

Thompson said another turning point in his long career, and one that allowed him to extend it into his late 30s, was getting sober in 2016. Since, he has been a strong advocate for sobriety and mental health, and he has openly and often shared his story.

“If I can help one person, it’s a win,’’ Thompson said. “If I’m open about my struggles, and about getting sober, maybe that helps someone else.’’

Thompson said he knew he was at career’s end this summer, when he continued to enjoy working out – he’s been doing jujitsu for about a month – but no longer felt like training like a pro hockey player.

“That was a tell-tale sign,’’ he said.

Thompson wants to remain involved in hockey, and his personable nature and beloved status among former teammates furnishes him a phone-full of contacts to network.

For now, he continues to help raise his newborn daughter, Wylder (four months), and son Teague (8).

And he thinks back to when he was drafted in 2003 – remember, he was a mere sixth-rounder – and how just getting his name called seemed surreal.

“I was in awe,’’ Thompson recalled. “I always wanted to play in the NHL. But how many games? How many years? What capacity? What happened was beyond my wildest dreams.’’

Story made possible by:

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Advanced Diagnostics, INC | Alaska Airlines | Alaska Oil and Gas Association | Alliance for Support of American Legion Baseball in Alaska | Joe Alston | Arctic Slope Regional Corporation | Aspen Endodontics | Glen Bailey | Kathie Bethard | Black-Smith, Bethard & Carlson, LLC. | BOSCO's | Don Clary & Judy Besh | Zareena and Allen Clendaniel | Continental Auto Group | Joey Caterinichio & Ja Dorris | The Conway Family | Donley Family | Jim & Michelle Hajdukovich | Foley & Pearson | JL Properties | Mark and Jamie Johnson | Kristopher Knauss | Loren Kroon | Dr. Justin Libby, DDS | Jason & Shannon Metrokin | Amy and Jason Miller | Multisport Training of Alaska/Lisa Keller | Rick Mystrom | Kathleen Navarre | Seth Wickersham & Alison Overholt | Dave and DeAnne Rand | R&M Consultants, Inc. | RE/MAX Dynamic Properties Kevin Taylor | Replacement Glass | Residential Mortgage | RSA Engineering- Sarah & A.J. Schirack | Tony and Carla Slaton Barker | Sportclips Haircuts | Alice & Gunnar Knapp | Peter Pounds | Dan Rufner | Harlow Robinson | Pete Robinson | Moria Smith | Taylored Restoration | In memory of Drs. John & Elizabeth Tower | Team Heat | Todd Whited | UAA Seawolves | Don Winchester

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