The Tampa Bay Lightning have surprised many with their surge to the top of the Eastern Conference. A combination of leadership and skill, good coaching and solid goaltending is what Nate Thompson attributes to the team's success. Thompson, who has found the right fit in Tampa Bay, discusses life growing up in Alaska, the journey he took to the NHL and his new brother-in-law.
Kathryn Tappan: Growing up in Alaska, what were some of the activities you participated in outside of hockey?
Nate Thompson: In Alaska, fishing was the big thing. If I wasn’t a hockey player I’d be a fly fisherman. In the winter I actually skied and snowboarded. We also played hockey outside. I really enjoyed playing football. I was a running back and loved playing the game. I did so right up until I left to play hockey in Seattle [for the Thunderbirds in the Western Hockey League].
KT: What were some of the biggest challenges of playing hockey in Alaska?
NT: I owe my parents a lot for allowing me to play hockey. We had some pretty good teams that I was a part of growing up with guys like Matt Carle and Brandon Dubinsky. We all played together growing up. We played against so many teams and had so much travel playing in a lot of tournaments. That’s how you got your exposure and that's how you got better. I owe my parents because it wasn't cheap and it was time-consuming.
KT: Well, it paid off because you have solidified yourself as an NHL player on a darn good team. What’s been the key to the Lightning's success this season?
NT: I think a little bit of everything. Having Coop [coach Jon Cooper] here, right away he had us all on the same page right from Day 1 of training camp. We have a good team, and had one in the past, I just think we underachieved. We have a core group of veterans here and then the young guys who have come up have played extremely well. They are all familiar with Coop because they played for him in the AHL. Ben Bishop has been unbelievable this year; that's always a plus when your goalie is your best player. We've done a good job responding well after a loss.
KT: It wasn't always an easy ride for you. Drafted in 2003 by Boston in the sixth round, you were picked up on waivers twice, by the New York Islanders and then Tampa Bay. Was having patience a big part of those years as you developed as a pro?
NT: There were a lot of ups and downs. Being put on waivers in general is a tough spot to be in, let alone twice. I was trying to find my way as a player. The Islanders gave me a chance and then that didn’t work out. As soon as I got to Tampa I really settled in. As I got older I really started to figure it all out. [General manager] Steve Yzerman has given me a great opportunity. Now as I'm a big part of the team and wearing a letter it's been such a great fit for me.
KT: Why has Tampa been the perfect fit?
NT: That's a good question. Sometimes it just doesn't work out with a team like Boston or New York. It could be numbers, you may be a younger player and there are other guys there. Part of it is by chance. In Tampa the guys I've been put with have given me the opportunity to succeed in my role.
KT: Steven Stamkos is not just your teammate -- he's your good friend. What was your reaction to his injury when you saw him on the ice?
NT: I was scared. It's so hard to see a guy like that, especially Stammer, for him to not get up and skate off, I knew something was seriously wrong. More importantly I was worried about his health as a person. You have to put hockey aside and hope that he's OK. It was so tough to watch. But Stammer is a specimen, a freak, so I wouldn't be surprised if he's back a lot quicker than everyone thinks.
KT: How has your role as a center changed in Stamkos’ absence?
NT: It won't change a lot but there will be times where I will be called upon more with different situations, whether it's 4-on-4 or playing with the top-line guys for an extra shift in a game. I think we all are trying to respond. We can't sulk and feel sorry for ourselves because Stammer is hurt. We have to find a way to win without him.
KT: The past two seasons you've participated in the World Championship. What is it like to wear the Team USA sweater?
NT: It's an honor. Whenever I have a chance to play for Team USA it's a special feeling to represent your country. This past year when we won the bronze medal it was something I'll never forget. It's a great experience.
KT: You got married in July. Cristin Stuart, a former standout on the Boston College women's hockey team, now is Mrs. Thompson. Is there friendly competition between you two on the ice?
NT: (laughs) We skated together for the first time last year during the lockout when I was playing in Alaska. There was a little bit of competition. She put the skates on and she kept saying she was rusty but I disagreed. I thought she still looked pretty good. She's a great skater. Every now and then we talk about hockey but she's good about it and doesn't bring it up very often. She jokes that she's retired for a reason. But it's really cool to be able to say that your wife played hockey as well.
KT: Cristin also happens to be the sister to your former teammate and current Winnipeg Jet defenseman Mark Stuart.
NT: (laughs) Yeah, she is. Nothing ever changes on the ice between us. He's such a competitive guy, and so am I, that when we get on the ice, even if we're brothers-in-law, it doesn't matter. We're still going to play and go hard against each other. Mark's been like that from the day I met him. We were roommates [with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League] and we would get into it at practice and not talk for a couple of hours when we got home but then we'd be fine. On the ice we're opponents but after the game we're good again.
KT: Is Dec. 7, when Winnipeg comes to Tampa, circled on the family calendar?
NT: Oh yeah. Cristin's mom, dad and grandparents are coming to that one. It's always tough for Cristin and her family to figure out who to root for. They usually hope for a 1-1 game where we both score a goal and then it goes to a shootout. Everyone gets a point. That's what they're hoping for.
NT: It's going. It definitely looks interesting. I'm not the most attractive guy right now but it's for a great cause. You see every guy in all the highlights for all the games and a lot of guys have a mustache. It's a great cause and at the same time it's kind of fun to walk around with a mustache for a month.
KT: What was your welcome-to-the-NHL moment?
NT: My first game in Boston I remember being in the locker room and I remember very clearly Zdeno Chara coming over to me and saying, "Nate, this is the best League. You're not going to go any higher than this. You've made it." That was pretty cool. I thought to myself, wow, this is it.
KT: Do you have any game-day superstitions?
NT: When I get dressed before I get ready for a game I always put everything on the left first before the right. I've been doing it ever since I was playing minor hockey. Left always. Left first then right. I think I do it with my shoes too. It's weird.