Paul Thompson was pure determination.
He was never a blue-chip prospect but piled up an impressive run in amateur hockey, from youth to Pinkerton Academy, juniors and especially at the University of New Hampshire, where he won Hockey East Player of the Year.
While those accolades eventual earned him notice from the pro scouts, Thompson was an true underdog, more about never-ending grit than flash.
Well, the grit that drove him for 13 pro seasons, which included parts of two seasons in the NHL, has run its course.
The Derry, N.H. native — a married father of two — has decided to retire.
“I was training all summer planning to play,” said Thompson, who now lives in Longmeadow, Mass. “But when it came time to go to training camp, I just didn’t have that same excitement for it. I still love the game, but the way I play, if I’m not all in, it’s not fair to myself or anyone else. I just didn’t have that same itch, and I haven’t had any second thoughts yet.”
In mid-September, as he prepared to head to NHL camp with the New York Islanders on a tryout basis, the 34-year-old Thompson made the decision to retire from professional hockey, after playing parts of two seasons in the NHL, and 13 seasons in the American Hockey League.
“It’s crazy that it’s over, because it really flew by,” said a very emotional Thompson, fighting back tears. “Everyone grows up wanting to be a professional athlete, and I did it. I was in the NHL! It was my dream, but it was a dream that I never thought was realistic. I didn’t think it was going to happen, but it happened. This game gave me everything, my wife and family, my friends. It really was an indescribable run.
“But I’m ready for a more normal routine. I want to be there for everything for my kids. I want to coach their hockey games. The best part of my career was having my wife, Kelsey, and children, Charlie and Colette, and my games, and now it’s their time. I want to be there for everything for them, because they supported my dream.
HUMBLE START, UNH STAR
In a world where big-time hockey prospects are now rated in elementary school, Thompson’s hockey beginnings were far more humble.
“I was very lucky to grow up with great parents and a great family,” said Thompson. “They weren’t into sports before me. My dad didn’t grow up in hockey. But they did everything possible to make sure I did what I needed to do. They just let it happen. I did ‘Learn to Skate,’ and when someone told them I needed to move to the next level, I did.
“My parents (Paul Sr. and Susan) and sister (Brittany) spent more time in cold rinks than anyone ever should. I’m so thankful for their support. They were amazing. I never would have gotten here without them.”
Thompson starred for two seasons (2003-05) at Pinkerton Academy (34 goals), then for two seasons of junior hockey with the New Hampshire Monarchs (2005-07, 58 goals). But, even then, his dreams were modest.
“I wanted to play college hockey, because I’m from New England,” he said. “I thought that was the pinnacle of hockey. But I thought I would be playing Division 3 college hockey. In my first year with the Monarchs, a teammate of mine and I got letters from Manhattanville College. We thought that was amazing. I had a chance to play Division 3 college hockey!
“I just kept going and went on a few college visits. After a couple good years with the Monarchs, I was offered by UNH and committed right away. There as never another school I would choose. It was a dream come true. I wondered, ‘How could it get any better than this?’”
After two up-and-down seasons (10 combined goals) at UNH, Thompson scored 19 goals as a junior and truly broke out as a senior (28 goals, 24 assists), winning Hockey East Player of the Year.
BECOMING A PRO
Thompson was never selected in the NHL Draft, but instead embarked on a professional journey unsure of what to expect.
“I still didn’t think playing in the NHL was realistic,” he said. “I saw a college teammate sign with an AHL team, so I did the same, with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (the AHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins). I didn’t know what to expect. I go to training camp, look around and (future NHL Hall of Famer) Sidney Crosby was there. I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t at his level, but I was at that level.”
Thompson spent four seasons (2010-13) with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, then played AHL seasons for the Springfield Falcons (2013-14) and the Albany Devils (2014-16).
“I had to learn,” said Thompson. “I had to learn my habits weren’t good enough. I had to learn what my role was, and embrace it. I had to accept the hard-nosed role. I realized there were other ways to contribute to a hockey team than scoring. I had to bring it 100 percent every night. I had to play like a jerk sometimes. I always had to bring it.”
MAKING THE NHL
While shopping at a convenience store, during his second season with Albany, Thompson received the call he was waiting for.
He was going to the NHL, called up by the New Jersey Devils.
“You work for that dream of making it to the NHL, whether for a career or just a few games,” he said. “It was a joy. Seeing the joy on the faces of my family and friends is something I will always cherish. My first game was against the Bruins, and it was on NESN. I was nervous and tried not to make mistakes, but it was also amazing.”
Thompson spent three games with the Devils, before returning to the AHL.
He would finally earn a more extended shot one year later, playing 21 games as a member of the Florida Panthers, recording three assists.
“My first game with Florida was in Boston at the TD Garden!” he said, again breaking into tears. “So many people came out to cheer me on. That was probably the most special night of my life, aside from my kids being born. It was a dream, but not one I thought was going to happen. But somehow it did.
“When you’re at that level and you’re just looking around, it’s wild and very special. I played a lot with (former Boston Bruins fan favorite) Shawn Thornton, who I grew up watching. I was in the NHL, so I was happy. I could play five minutes a night, and I was OK because I was in the NHL. Even if I was a healthy scratch, I was still in the NHL. It was such a joy.”
Also, while in the NHL, he was able to share a very special memory with his father.
“During my time with Florida, they had a trip where fathers could travel with the team,” he remembered. “My dad was able to come down, and neither of us had been on a private plane before. Seeing him eat a filet on a charter jet was one of the most special things for me. He worked so hard as an electrician to provide for us. To share that trip with him was something I am always going to remember.”
After his time in the NHL, Thompson settled into a career in the AHL, where he would play 697 games and score 192 goals and 181 assists.
He spent two seasons as the captain for the Springfield Thunderbirds (2018-20) and was an assistant captain for four different teams.
“I take great pride in taking on a leadership role in the AHL,” said Thompson, who plans to go into coaching. “Teams put a lot of trust in me, and I grew into that leadership role. AHL players are elite. Only so many veteran guys can play in the AHL, and you either have to be able so score a bunch of goals or be a leader. I tried to bring it every night, and help the guys follow me. I found a passion for teaching a coaching.”
FOCUS ON FAMILY
With his retirement from professional hockey, Thompson is now looking forward to life at home in Longmeadow with his family.
He is coaching his 8-year-old son Charlie’s hockey team, and helps out with his 7-year-old daughter Colette’s hockey team.
“They’re both playing, even though I tried to steer them another way,” he said with a laugh. “But seeing so much hockey, they ended up loving it. Being able to be at every one of their games and coaching them, that’s something I want. I spent the last couple of years commuting an hour-and-a-half to play for the Bridgeport (Conn.) Islanders (AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders). It worked out OK, but I would still be gone on the weekends.
“I met my wife while I was playing for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. She traveled to different places with me when I changed teams when I we were younger. It was a fun life. But now that we’ve settled, she has found a passion for real estate. She has been very successful, and it’s her turn now.”
Thompson is also thrilled he had the chance to share his hockey career with his family.
“I am forever grateful for my wife’s support,” he said through tears. “And I am so grateful that I played long enough that my children got to see me play, and be in the locker room, at the games and on the ice with me. It was always easy to play hard when I knew they were there.
“And I’m so thankful for my parents’ and sister’s support. No matter what, my mom was my biggest cheerleader. She always told me I was the best player on the ice, even if Sidney Crosby was out there with me. There were days early in my career that I needed to hear that.”
Paul Thompson was pure determination.