Nate Thompson was like many other youth hockey players, destined for higher levels. He was scoring goals, putting up big numbers. He didn’t necessarily have to worry about the details of the game to succeed.
When he got to juniors, he began to round out his game. And he has not stopped working.
“It definitely hit home when I turned pro,” Thompson said. “In the minors, I really had to find my nitch and change my game a little bit to make it to the next level.
“Every team needs a guy that does the little things right.”
That is because the little things add up to big things. Thompson has been a quick study and it is a big reason he is likely to have an NHL spot for some time. The Anchorage, Alaska native is beginning to build his reputation as a player who can do the job on the penalty kill, in the face-off circle, along the boards, in the defensive zone and with his fists, among other aspects of the game.
Lightning Executive Vice President and General Manager Brian Lawton said he plucked the 6-foot, 207-pound center/left wing off the waiver wire from the Islanders January 21 because the team would benefit from his tenacity, physicality, energy and overall ability.
In his first two games, Thompson made a strong impact in a pair of victories. He won eight of 11 face offs in the victory over Atlanta and four of seven against the Canadiens Wednesday. He also had two shots in each game and helped the penalty kill go nine for nine.
“He did some nice things for us,” Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet said.
Thompson, 25, played 40 games for the Islanders this season, with a goal and five assists, playing the north-south type game Tocchet prefers. His one goal this season? Yes, against the Lightning.
He struggled with injuries in 2008-09 on Long Island, playing 43 games, and ran into a numbers game midway through this season.
“We had a lot of guys there,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, I was the odd man out. But I give [GM] Garth Snow and [coach] Scott Gordon a lot of respect for giving me the opportunity. No hard feelings. It’s just the business side of the game.”
Now he is ready for a new opportunity and a new climate.
“I’m trying to get used to tee-shirt and shorts weather,” Thompson said, with a smile.
His new home won’t bring back memories of where he grew up.
Thompson is one of the growing list of NHL players from Alaska. Scott Gomez, former Lightning defenseman Matt Carle, Brandon Dubinsky and Ty Conklin are among 11 who have made the show from the 49th state.
“Hockey is it up there,” Thompson said. “It’s a great place, with a small-town feel. Everyone knows everyone, especially in the hockey community. The coaches up there did a lot for me in my hockey career.
“Scott Gomez is the one who put us on the map. He’s pretty much a hockey god up there in Alaska.”
Thompson went on to play four seasons with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, leading the team to the division title in 2005 with 19 goals and a plus/minus of plus-12. He was selected in the sixth round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins.
Boston signed Thompson in 2005 and he played 11 playoff games for the Providence Bruins of the AHL. In three seasons with Providence, he had 35 goals and 80 points in 216 games. He won the Fan Appreciation Award with Providence in 2006-07 and was the team captain in 2007-08. He was also captain in Seattle.
“I learned, even if you are not wearing the letter, you can still be a leader,” Thompson said. “But being the captain, you have to do the right things on and off the ice to lead by example. It’s not always being a rah-rah guy. The great captains in this league, they do it on the ice. That’s the most important thing.”
Gordon, who coached him in Providence and with the Islanders, swiped Thompson from the Bruins on waivers at the beginning of last season. His first NHL goal was a short-handed tally, November 4, 2008, when he batted a puck out of the air past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Thompson hopes to add a few more highlights in Tampa.
“It’s a great group of guys here,” he said. “It’s a good mix. You have some characters, some quieter guys. I’m excited. It hasn’t been hard to fit in.”