Rocky Thompson trudged down the tunnel leading from the ice, the last player to close out the Toronto Roadrunners’ morning skate at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena, the clocking pushing well past noon.
Head coach Geoff Ward had just put his team through the optional session, which began at 11 a.m. Most of Thompson’s teammates had long since left the ice and strolled back to the team hotel for a nap, pregame meal and to prepare for the contest with the Americans later that night.
A nagging injury forced Thompson out of the Roadrunners’ lineup a night earlier in Syracuse, and he used the morning skate to get some extra ice time before sitting out agaom later that night against the Americans.
By this point in the season, Thompson’s body is battered. It’s the lot of an enforcer like Thompson, whose nicks, scrapes and bruises are the remnants of his nightly work. Sitting down to chat, Thompson relaxed with a large ice pack.
It’s been two years since Thompson saw National Hockey League time, that being a stint with the Florida Panthers. The nightly punishment that Thompson’s body has taken is what he puts up with to get another shot back in the NHL.
“To be this close to to achieving your dream, and getting a taste of it sometimes, it’s hard to describe the feeling. That’s why I’m still playing. That’s why I’m playing hard down here every year, getting scars, getting stitches.”
Thompson’s road back to the NHL means time in the American Hockey League.
“If you’re going to the NHL, you have to play in the AHL,” Thompson began.
“You’re one step away. If you work hard down here and listen to what you’re told, you can’t help but get better. If you have the right attitude, and you take what is given to you, then you’re going to give yourself a chance to go up and play in a league that has been all of our dreams since we were kids.”
But two years removed from the NHL, how does Thompson rate his NHL chances, coming over to the Edmonton organization from Florida this past summer?
“It’s just a matter of whether I’m going to get an opportunity. I feel that I can do it. I’ve proven in the past that when I got called up that I can play a role up there. It’s just a matter of my game improving. My ultimate goal is to make it to the NHL. But if it’s not in the cards, I still have my health and my family, and that’s all that matters. But I do believe that I could help and make an impact.”
The Roadrunners could have used Thompson’s presence later that night in a 6-2 loss to the Americans that grew chippy late. His 144 penalty minutes through 42 games lead the Roadrunners in that category.
Thompson’s Roadrunners have had their fair share of ups and downs this season and are a work in progress with more half of the AHL slate in the books.
“I love to win. That’s why it’s tough right now. That’s so frustrating. We’re right there. We’re right on the fence, and we can fall either way right now. I think we’re starting to lean toward the successful side of the fence, and that’s what drives me.”
A solid core of veterans, starting in net with Steve Valiquette and continuing on out with Jamie Wright, Peter Sarno and Dave Roche, gives the Roadrunners a chance every night.
“We’re not a team that gets blown out. At the start, we were making young errors. And not just our young guys, but our older guys too. That’s what was costing us.”
“If we play 55 minutes, we’re going to lose by a goal. If we play 60 minutes, we’re going to win by a goal.”
That said, the roster that Thompson skates alongside of most nights is a young one. His reputation rock-solid around the AHL, he serves as a deterrent to opponents looking to test and push around Thompson’s young teammates.
Thompson’s a hockey junkie and he has been doing some mentoring this season that is an offshoot of some long-range career planning.
“I like helping other guys,” Thompson explained. “I like being a bit of a role model for other guys coming into the league and sharing my experiences with them. I believe that I’m a pretty good teacher, and I want to be a teacher. I’d love to be a coach, and I want to continue to stay involved in hockey.”
“When I’m done with this game, I want to be a successful coach. I don’t want to do it to make money. I want to do it because I’m competitive.”
Having played for a slew of coaches over the years, Thompson has taken to observing what works and what does not.
“All the time, absolutely. All of them have great assets and attributes. You can see the things they do that are right and maybe the things that aren’t right and how the room reacts. You can file that, note that for the future.”
The Roadrunners have a coaching staff of three — Ward, longtime NHL defenseman Jeff Beukeboom and Thompson’s old coach with the Louisville Panthers, Joe Paterson — that should provide Thompson with something to take and apply someday should he step behind the bench.
“Geoff Ward has been awesome to me. Sometimes I’ve had to play a little bit up front, and he has put me on a great line with Sarno. Obviously I’m not going to want to carry the puck much up front. I’m going to want to give it to a skill guy and then maybe create a little havoc. I’m really appreciative.
“I’m 26 years old, so I’m not an old man. I still feel like I can learn a lot. This is definitely a group a people that helps me a lot.”
Having a figure Beukeboom is a perk for a defenseman like Thompson.
“Beuky is great. He works with us on the drills after practice, and I’ve noticed an improvement in my game.”
Thompson’s stay in Toronto has been a nice change of pace for him after recent seasons spent in temperate climes like San Antonio and Louisville.
It’s hockey first in Toronto, the Roadrunners sitting right in the mix of the Toronto hockey scene.
“Without a doubt. In Texas, you’re on the seventh or eighth page of the sports section. In Toronto, I was on the front page of the Toronto Star. That never happened in the States, there’s no way. Hockey is our sport.”
It being Toronto, NHL scouts are constantly hovering.
“The support and the exposure you get in Toronto, especially with all of the NHL scouts.”
“This is my seventh year in the league, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of the scouts for other teams. Every game I see another, and I’m always saying ‘hi.’ As far a career move, to get that exposure…” Thompson said, his words trailing off with the thought.
Thompson was eager to get home later that night after the game. The Roadrunners’ team bus would have them back in Toronto early Sunday morning. With an open Sunday on the schedule, Thompson looked forward to seeing his wife and three children back home.
That home boasts a backyard rink. Thompson built it for his young charges.
“It’s just back to where I remember as a kid. This year is the first year I’ve been able to put a rink in my backyard for my two oldest kids, my five-year-old and my three-year-old.”
The transition to Toronto coming complete, Thompson continues to ride the buses, play the three-game weekends and battle for an NHL job.
“I just love everything about hockey. I love hockey. It’s just so much fun.”