One of the perks of playing in the National Hockey League is that you get to visit all the major cities in North America. And not just once, either, but often enough to learn your way around, try the best restaurants and visit the museums and tourist attractions.
But if you were born and raised in Alaska, as soon as the season wraps up, it’s off to the woods for a fishing trip. At least that’s the way it usually is for Lightning forward Nate Thompson.
There are, currently, seven Alaskan-born players in the NHL, and the Lighting have two of them. In addition to Thompson, newly-reacquired defenseman Matt Carle also hails from the state. Then there is also forward Tim Wallace, who played for the Bolts last season, claiming the 49th state as their birthplace. This year Thompson gathered his three Alaskan teammates, past and future, along with some old friends, and took a plane to Anchorage and from there a smaller plane to the tiny village of Igiugig. With a population of 66, consisting of Yup’ik Eskimos and Athabascan Indians, the village sits at the headwaters of the Kvichak River, famous for trophy-sized Rainbow Trout and home to one of the world’s largest runs of Sockeye Salmon.
Once you reach the village, it’s clear you’re not in the big city any more. The biggest excitement Igiugig has had in a while was when Dan Decker, the Village Public Safety Officer, had a bird fly down his chimney and around the inside of his house.
But wait, you’re not to your destination yet. Now, a river boat takes everyone four miles downstream to the lodge.
“It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Thompson said, in case you hadn’t guessed. “No TV, no radio, no nothing. Once you’re outside you’re on the boat or in the river wading and fly fishing then it’s just you and that’s it. Nothing around you.”
If that sort of thing gives a city boy the creeps, it’s just the tonic for Thompson.
“I like that. It’s nice,” Thompson said. “It’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything that is involved in living in the city and the cell phone. It’s nice to get away from that and I guess it sounds kind of corny but it’s like being one with the river.”
Feeling a kinship with nature is something Thompson feels strongly.
“You’re standing in these rivers and you look around you and you’re in the valley with mountains in the background and eagles flying around and spotting bears, it’s a pretty surreal feeling to be a part of that while at the same time you’re fishing for a trophy-size rainbow trout. It’s a life experience.”
A life-experience, and one he anticipates doing for the rest of his life.
“That’s just something I know I’ll never stop doing,” Thompson said. “I’ll never stop going on fishing trips like that, that’s for sure.”
Thompson also got in some lake fishing time when he went to spend visit with his girlfriend’s family in Ontario. After such a remote time at the Alaskan lodge, you can’t blame Thompson for wanting a larger locale for this adventure, so they fished Lake Lac Seul, located just outside the town of Ear Falls (population 1,026).
This time the pursuit was for walleyes, a staple of the lakes in the northern U.S. and Canada.
“There were about 15 of us and we fished the lake for 4 or 5 days,” Thompson said. “We caught a ton of walleyes, some trophy size.”
There was some hockey in Thompson’s off-season, too, as he participated in the World Championship as a member of the United States squad, netting two goals in eight games.
“It’s great to play in a tournament like that, an international tournament, no matter what it is,” Thompson said. “You play against different teams and see different places. It’s pretty awesome.”
The U.S. team played in Group H, which competed in Helsinki, Finland, a country that Thompson had never visited before.
“It was a great experience. Anytime you go to Europe it’s a totally different experience than in the United States. The people in Finland were extremely friendly and everywhere I went the people spoke English. That was pretty helpful.”
But now, as Thompson’s prep for the season kicks into high gear, he’s anxious to get started. After missing the Stanley Cup finals by one game in 2011, Thompson thinks he’s learned something heading into this season.
“I just think that we were guilty, maybe, that after we did so well it was just automatically going to happen for us,” Thompson said. “We had a sense of entitlement. That’s part of the learning process of winning and doing so well is learning to deal with it and how to come back the next season.”
Even this year’s goal is toned down in Thompson’s thoughts.
“The biggest thing – the one goal- has to be to make the playoffs and once you make the playoffs you just go from there. I think this year was a perfect example of that when the Kings just made the playoffs just a few days before the end of the season and they went on to win the Stanley Cup.”
Although there was that trip to Europe to play in the World Championships, this summer certainly was tamer for Thompson than the last, when he and teammate Teddy Purcell headed off for a week of fun in Ireland.
Although Purcell seemed game for a repeat performance, it was Thompson that was looking for something different.
“I think we just made our mark in Ireland and you have to move on from that,” Thompson said. “We couldn’t top it.”
There was also this caution to his traveling buddy.
“I don’t think he’d have had any fun anyway without me there.”