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Rocky Thompson Evolves From Enforcer To Astute Hockey Coach

The coach of the Golden Knights' AHL affiliate in Chicago will be behind the bench during Rookie Camp

by Gary Lawless VegasGoldenKnights.com / VegasGoldenKnights.com

Rocky Thompson will tell you those two words, his name, are the biggest drag on his coaching career.

Utter the name, Joel Quenneville for example and for most, the first thoughts center around his brilliant coaching career.

The initial response to his name, says Thompson, still focuses on his playing career.

"Most people still think about me as a player. And I was a fighter. So, for many there's a negative connotation," explains Thompson. That's part of my reality as a coach - to change that perception."

For people inside the hockey world - that perception has already changed. Thompson is regarded as an innovative coach with a knack for getting through to players. His career curve is trending upward and he's on that hot list of young coaches who get mentioned when NHL vacancies open.

The Golden Knights hired him this offseason to coach their AHL affiliate the Chicago Wolves. It wasn't the only gig he was in line for and an interview with another NHL team resulted in a most telling answer from Thompson.

Video: Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson

 

An NHL executive asked Thompson what was his biggest weakness as a coach.

"That's easy. It's my name. Rocky Thompson," answered the coach, fresh off leading the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup championship. "I have to get people to look past who they think I am and show them who I really am."

The answer sums up the Thompson of today: Confident yet self-aware. A man who looks in the mirror, makes an assessment and then goes about doing what it takes to define that portrait. Rocky Thompson is holding the brush and nobody else is getting in on the painting.

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Talk to NHL folks about Rocky Thompson's keynote speech regarding offence in hockey at the 2015 coaches conference in Florida and the same quote gets recirculated: "He blew them away."

No doubt there was eye-rolling in the room when Thompson strode to the dais after some opening remarks from Scotty Bowman. This was a guy who had only played 25 games in the NHL over a 10-year career and was best known for great hair and better fights. Scoring? From this guy? No way.

 

 

"I know my talk had an impact. Because when we left the room, lots of guys wanted to come up to me and talk about the principles I had outlined," said Thompson. "One of them was Bob Boughner. And he asked me if I'd be interested in coaching the Windsor Spitfires."

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It was the early off season of 2015 and Thompson found himself in a common position for coaches - one of uncertainty.

"Todd (McLellan) had just been hired by the Oilers and I was still under contract but didn't know his plans. I didn't know if I was going to have a job and I knew I had to get my name out there," said Thompson. "George Kingston was running the coaches' association at the time and was in charge of the event. I asked him if there any openings and he said, 'Sure, we need someone to talk about offence.' So, I jumped at it."

There was a lineup to talk with Thompson after his address that day. Now an NHL franchise led by George McPhee - as thoughtful of a GM as you'll come across - has entrusted it's most prized possessions to Thompson.

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"I'm not the knucklehead some people see me as because I was an enforcer as a player," said Thompson, who will play a pivotal role in developing Golden Knights prospects. "There's so much more to me. I have to develop a positive reaction when people hear my name and not just the association which comes along with being a fighter as a player."

Thompson is the new breed of coach. He's hard and accountability is big in his dressing room but he's also in touch with the players. He builds trust and relationships. Players want to win and they want to get better. Thompson is a driving force in both those areas.

"I'm learning and the players are learning. I know how to build a winning environment. Where nothing is given, it's earned," said Thompson. "It stimulates winning habits and fosters a grassroots accountability system. Everyone has a part in it. That's the best environment for development."

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