In the mid-1990s, Rocky Thompson patrolled the blueline for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League. He had long hair, crazy eyes, a short fuse and he would fight anyone. He could throw with both hands. On the ice, Thompson instilled fear in many players, but off the ice he was a scratch golfer, a reader and a highly skilled amateur boxer. His hands were fast, but his feet never inherited the same speed on the ice.
He fought his way to being a third round draft pick of the Calgary Flames in 1995. He made his NHL debut on January 28th, 1998 against the Anaheim Ducks. He fought David Karpa and Brent Severyn in the first period. The next night in Los Angeles he fought Matt Johnson.
Thompson played 12 games in 1997/1998 and fought nine times. He knew what skillset would keep him in the NHL. He played 13 more NHL games over the next four seasons, and during his final five seasons in the AHL from 2003-2007 he never got another shot in the NHL. He retired in the summer of 2007. He was 30 years young. His career stat line: 25 NHL games, no points, 14 fights and 117 penalty minutes.
He played 10 seasons in the AHL, skating in 566 games scoring 17-52-79 and racking up 1,919 penalty minutes.
He had a reputation of being a tough guy, who could be a bit of a loose cannon.
Thompson grew his hair long and he’d do something many considered crazy a few times each season just to keep the opposition on their toes.
“I’d purposely go over the top with my antics sometimes, because it made others feel uncomfortable. It gave me a bit more time and space on the ice, and I needed it,” he said with a laugh during an interview we had in 2017 when he was head coach of the Windsor Spitfires.
Thompson retired from hockey in the summer of 2007. He was tired of the AHL grind, but he stopped playing mainly because Steve Pleau offered him an assistant coaching job with the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL. Thompson relished the role.
Many assumed because of his on-ice antics and skillset, Thompson was just a goon or a cement head. Far from it. He’s actually quite bright.
So smart, in fact, that eight years later in May of 2015, when his coaching future was in limbo, Thompson reached out to a coaching legend and asked for an opportunity to speak in front of hundreds of professional coaches. It turned out to be a great decision.
“At the time I was an assistant with the Oilers,” said Thompson. “Todd McLellan had been hired, but every one else was let go. I wasn’t sure what my future was as Todd hadn’t made up his mind on me. I thought I might be the next one to go. George Kingston always sent out email asking for people who would want to present at the NHL’s coaches conference at the NHL entry draft. I felt I needed to get my name out there, so I called him and said I’d like to present.
“He named a few options and asked what I’d like to do. I don’t remember the exact name of it, but it was offensive-themed and I choose it because no one would be expecting anything great from me.
“If I could do a good job on that, and I was confident I could, then I could change the conversation about who I was and get my name out there with all the coaches. Many of the NHL coaches, junior coaches and coaches from Europe are at the conference. It is massive. I felt a good presentation would help me if things didn’t go how I’d like with the Oilers.”
The coaching conference occurs each year, a day or two before the draft. Thompson walked into the room, quite nervous, and delivered his presentation on offence. A guy with 17 goals in the AHL was talking about offence. He crushed it.
“The presentation went really well. It opened up some people’s eyes. And right after, Bob Boughner came up to me and asked if I’d like to coach the Windsor Spitfires. He was the head coach at the time, and I asked him what is going on. He said he was going to San Jose and he and his co-owner, Warren Rychel, would like to interview me for the job.
“It worked out perfect. The Oilers allowed me to interview with the Spitfires, and that presentation changed things for me,” said Thompson
What was in the presentation I asked?
“It was broke up into three parts: Skill, principles and adjustments,” replied Thompson
“With any offence you need skill. If you have low skill or if the individual or the team has no skill it is not that you can’t produced offence, but it is really difficult. Skill is an important factor.
“And then if you do have skill, what are certain areas of the ice that skill players can take advantage of to increase their scoring percentages? I had a whole bunch of analytics done by Steve Valiquette (former NHL goalie), who has his own analytics company, but back then (2015) coaches looking deep into these things wasn’t that common.
“I give Dallas Eakins (he was head coach with Oilers for Thompson’s one year in Edmonton) a lot of credit as he was in it with Tyler Dellow. I got to work with Tyler and it was one of the best things to happen to me. We helped each other. What Tyler didn’t understand and know about the hockey side, he understood through numbers, and I more knew hockey, but didn’t understand analytics and numbers. It translated well to me figuring out different ways to attack.
“The principles, and I’m sure everyone has watched the Michael Jordan documentary and the triangle offence, well I was calling mine two-on-one support offence. But when you really break it down, you can see the triangle in that same structure. I brought up old clips where you could see this offence existed no matter what era you played in, and it was generated from these principles. The speed and skill has changed in different areas, but the principles have always been there and I was able to show that and outline why they are important offensively.
“Finally, just showing adjustments. When you are doing something offensively, it could work against a certain team or a certain D zone structure, or the way a team plays gaps, but you have to be prepared as a coach to make an adjustment and not just keep hammering a square peg in a round hole.
I used a lot of NHL clips from that season to illustrate my points and it was well received. I had a lot of help. Billy Moores really helped me when I was preparing and Valiquette let me use his numbers to jive with the video.”
Thompson interviewed with Boughner and Rychel and was hired shortly after. He coached the Spitfires for two seasons winning 81 of his 136 games as a head coaching in the Ontario Hockey League. The hockey world took notice and the Vegas Golden Knights hired him to be their AHL head coach in the summer of 2017. He spent three years in the AHL, before Boughner hired him to be his associate coach with the San Jose Sharks whenever the NHL resumes in 2021.
Jason Strudwick and I had Thompson on our TSN 1260 radio show recently. You can listen to the entire interview here, but a few of his responses illustrated how he sees the game and why I expect he will be an NHL head coach in the future.
Jason Strudwick: The game has evolved a lot, and not much of it is about speed. How has your thought process of how hockey should be played evolved from when you played and then started coaching?
Thompson: I like how the rules have changed my idea of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I love physicality and things like that, but I think it (the game) is better now. I was against it originally when I was coaching in Junior when the head shot rules came in.
We were always taught it was the player’s fault getting hit for not having his head up. I like now that you don’t target the head. If anything, I think they should be stricter, and there shouldn’t be any head contact at all because of the speed of the game and how much fun the game is at that high level of speed. You don’t want to see these players get injured for a situation like that. It’s not that you don’t want to see physicality or hitting, it’s just if it’s done legally and you take the head out of it. It’s still a great game. It is fun and still action-packed.
I really hated the square up thing where guys would shake hands before fighting and did it more of a show. That drove me nuts, I didn’t like that. It’s like the fighting was almost something that was an emotional thing, or someone was doing something, and it needed to be addressed, not hey let’s do this for fun and then tap each other on the head. That always bugged me, so I loved the fact that they got rid of that.
And the fights we’re starting to see now, it’s the way it probably was intended to be. Things just kind of boil over and it happens. You saw a couple of times in the playoffs the guys who are fighting, it’s not something they do all of the time. It happened due to emotion and the spirit of the fighting. I prefer that.
In regard to the speed, that’s where I think that the game has really changed recently.
You’ll see its evolving with how the defencemen are being utilized right now. It’s happening in all three zones. With the defencemen activating from their D zone transition up the ice and leading the charge, you’ll see D-men leading rushes, you’ll see defencemen charging the net. It’s happened in the past to some degree, but not as much as you’re seeing it right now.
The transition of the game in the mid zone is something that has really changed. I think Gerard Gallant was a leader in that. You can ask anyone in the NHL and they will say Vegas is the best transition team in the league and they really are. It’s how they transition and how the defencemen get involved, in how they transition through the mid zone. It is fun and it’s something new and not everyone is doing it yet.
And then the activation of the defencemen in the offensive zone. If you watch Colorado, and of course you need players who can do it, but I think that you can do it with anybody personally. If you have smart reads and you’re smart it doesn’t mean that you have to be Cale Makar or Sam Girard or Shea Theodore or Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns. You don’t have to be the Norris Trophy winner to be seeing that offense in the offensive zone and not just from the blue line. Getting involved and activating in D zone coverages creates a ton of confusion coming out of the high ice with your defense activating.
And it just depends how far the coach is willing to go with that and how much does the coach trust the forwards. I think if you teach it the right way, you can go pretty darn far with it. And one, it’s fun the fans love it, and two, you generate a lot of offense that way. But it can be risky and it’s a little bit unconventional, and I think for a lot of people it’s tough because you’ve got to come out of your comfort zone to do it.
Strudwick: I love the way that you’re breaking it down because it would have been so much fun to jump off of the blueline, I couldn’t imagine doing that. But by saying that, and you see, especially with players like [Miro] Heiskanen, [Victor] Hedman and all of these guys jumping in off of the line.
Does it put extra pressure on your forwards to recognize that whoever comes flying off of their blue line post, that they maybe have to take a step off, or do you hold that line and say ‘we’re going to out man them down low and not worry too much about what’s going on behind us?’
Thompson: No, you keep going with the D. And, again that trust is being built between the players. It will cost you at times, especially when you start teaching it and the forwards are covering. And then every now and again you’ve got to teach your defencemen the puck management side of things when they’re activating that D.
Because again, if they’re going to try to throw a hope play in front of the opposition’s net and it’s going to feed to transition well, it could be an odd man rush against a forward and a defenceman back there, so you want them to be aggressive.
You’ve got to have trust so that your forwards are going to cover you as a defenceman, but at the end of the day, you’ve (D-man) got to be responsible. You named Hedman and Heiskanen — those guys are always doing it — so what you would do in the past is you would stick a defensive defenceman with one of those types of players.
What I’m saying is look at Jamie Oleksiak in the playoffs, he is supposed to be the guy protecting Heskanen. Watch him tomorrow. This guy has been up the ice and it’s made a whole difference in his production in the playoffs. I think he scored four or five goals, he’s got seven or eight points, and he had four or five points all year. And they weren’t playing like this during the year, Dallas wasn’t. Something has changed and it has made their defense on of the most offensively productive in the post season.
It speaks to how they are allowing them to activate and not just offensive guys. Guys like you Struddy, you’d be up in the rush too. Maybe even a guy like me, maybe I’d even be up in the rush. (Laughs).
Strudwick: No. No. Not me. That’s a lot of work buddy to get up there. When you see a guy like Hedman make a breakout pass and then get up to lead the rush and then get back in his own zone. I was in good shape, but I don’t think that I could have got this big body moving like that (laughs).
Thompson: Well that’s the thing too and you’re right, your defenceman are not used to this stuff so when you implement it early, it’s almost like it’s not sure if they want to do it because it is so much more work than they are used to.
When we were taught as defenceman… you make a good first pass and then it’s over, perfect. You’ve got to work a little to make a little bit of gap in case they turn it over but outside of that, that’s not too difficult. Now, it is pass it and then get up the ice. And if it hasn’t materialised by the tops of the circles or the oppositions top hash mark in front of the net, high to mid slot, well then disengage until it is safe. But we want them involved. So that’s why you’re seeing more and more skating defencemen and you will see more drafted that way, and smaller players who maybe people would have overlooked a little bit. But they are so good with their skating.
I mean Girard, who I thought was so good in the post season, he has a stick that’s the size of a mini-stick that you play on your knees in the hallways when you are on a hockey road trip when you are in peewee and Atom, that’s how long this guy’s stick is!
So, it’s not that he can defend very good, but it’s a form of defense when he has the puck all of the time and he’s skating it out of his end and getting up the ice. He’s making the other teams defend longer and forcing them to work harder in different areas and then when they get it, they don’t have the energy to take advantage of a three inch stick that the guy is trying to defend with.
Gregor: It is amazing how short his stick is (laughs). I want to switch to your responsibility with the Sharks. Will you run the defence and the powerplay?
Thompson: Yes, I’m going to be with the D and I’m going to run the power play as well. So, I’m excited about both. I will want our D to be engaged in all three zones. I think San Jose has a lot of potential with the power play and it could be unconventional because most teams go with four forwards and one defenceman, but with Brett Burns and Erik Karlsson you have two really good defensive options that could play and they may be the anomaly in the NHL where you have the two defencemen on your first unit, and take advantage of that. I’m excited about that challenge.
Gregor: The one big change I’ve seen in power plays over the last few years is shot volume from the blue line; it’s down a lot. The best power plays aren’t firing the puck from the blue line very often. You look at the Edmonton Oilers, it’s [Connor] McDavid, [Leon] Draisaitl, and [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins and the defenceman is almost the fifth option with the guy in front of the net.
You have two defencemen in San Jose on your powerplay and Karlsson is an unreal skater. So, will you engage him more down low? How do you ensure you don’t have too much shot volume from the blueline?
Thompson: Well I agree with you on shot volume. And that was something that when you looked at the analytics years ago, teams who were doing that (shot volume from blueline) were really struggling. It’s not that you never have a shot presence from the blue line, but there are certain things that have to happen in front of the net in order for it to have any type of success. And it’s very rare that you see those things in front of the net that can translate into some offense.
What I believe outside is when you do have a shot presence from the point is that a good quarterback on the power play creates space for the flanks. And if the flanks can get some space, you’re going to be able to generate some offense in various ways.
The pressure now on the penalty kills, in San Jose they were unbelievable, they were first in the league last year. And you are seeing more teams starting to get more aggressive. Which means you have to adjust on the powerplay, and you have to work a little bit harder to get those flanks a bit more space in order to make certain plays.
And then Glen Gulutzan (Oilers PP coach), said he wants his players to play road hockey, or something like that. Basically saying they are interchangeable and moving parts and you need to adlib. Sometimes Draisaitl is on the half wall, then McDavid will slide into the bumper spot, they kind of move around, which I think is really good, and gets you (powerplay guy) out of your position. Guys are better in certain spots, there is no doubt, but the PP becomes more dangerous when they succeed in different spots.
When you move in and out of spots and there is synchronicity too it becomes very dangerous. Guys on your own side of your power play are expecting it, anticipating it and it becomes unpredictable for the penalty kill and that’s what you want as well. But again, you are correct, the volume of shots and where they are coming from is really, really important. Visually you can see it, but the numbers really back it up as well.”
Thompson is a great example of the adage “never judge a book by its cover.” There was always a hockey mind underneath the long hair and wild-eyed persona and one presentation drastically altered his coaching path.
Don’t be afraid to surprise people.