The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
NHL player Nate Thompson is so in love with hockey he’d probably play it for peanuts, and he’s equally passionate about fishing thanks to an early assist from Snoopy.
An Alaskan in the truest sense of the word, Thompson’s first fishing memory included using a toy rod of the adorable beagle from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip franchise. And good grief, Charlie Brown, did that Snoopy pole ever do its job.
Thompson, who grew up in Anchorage, was just 2 years old when he and his dad, Robert, went fishing down on the Kenai Peninsula, and young Nate wasn’t exactly using state-of-the-art gear. Back in the day, Zebco manufactured a packaged “Catch ‘Em Kit,” complete with a ready-to-fish rod and reel, and the container it came in featured the canine himself fishing from his doghouse. It’s a good bet the gear wasn’t designed to catch an Alaskan salmon. But the following is a true story.
“It was by complete accident. I was just throwing my line in the water and my dad was fishing next to me,” says the 32-year-old Thompson, an Anaheim Ducks center whose team opens the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Thursday in Game 1 against the Calgary Flames. “He looked over and saw the pole was bending and almost to the point where it was snapping. He managed to either jump on the line or jump on the pole. He pretty much tackled the fish in the water.”
And with that, the youngster had his welcome-to-Alaska-fishing moment. “After that, my dad said I was hooked,” he recalls during a phone interview.
Only in this case the hooking didn’t result in a two-minute stay inside the penalty box. Thompson had two undisputed hobbies growing up in Alaska: the outdoors and hockey; or perhaps it was hockey and the outdoors. But he’s made a living with one and enjoyed life from the other.
And while he understandably stays busy with his job in Southern California and now has an infant son to raise, Thompson’s affinity for hunting and especially fishing is the same as it was when his Snoopy gear fooled that salmon 30 years ago.
“Pretty much every fishing trip after that, when I knew (my dad) was going, I’d be running out of the house and chasing him to make sure he wouldn’t leave without me,” Thompson says. “He said it was a given when he went fishing he had to take me with him.”
Thompson’s hockey career has sent him on a coast-to-coast tour across the continent, but it’s impossible to take the Alaskan out of his identity. In a state where winters feature frozen ponds and summers salmon runs, it’s not uncommon for skates, pucks and sticks or rods, reels and flies to define who you are.
“I look back now and whenever I go home, I kind of take for granted realizing that, ‘Wow! I grew up here.’ I know not a lot of kids get to experience what I did,” he says. “So it was a special place, remains a special place and is a cool place to call home.”
SOME ALASKANS WEREN’T BORN in Alaska. But so many times you can find yourself there and never want to leave again.
The oil boom in Alaska helped Thompson’s parents get there. Robert is from Ohio and Nate’s mom Cathy hails from the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Cathy’s parents moved north as part of the industry, and after she and Robert met in California they joined them.
Robert wasn’t much of an outdoorsman in the Lower 48, but living in our 49th state has a way of sucking you in – your kids too. Robert now lives around the salmon-filled Kenai Peninsula and fishes whenever possible. Young Nate and his sister, Tiffany, were introduced to the flora and fauna, even living in urban Anchorage.
“It really is the Last Frontier,” Nate says. “To be able to drive a half hour out of Anchorage, you can be in the middle of nowhere. Or you can drive to a place in Anchorage, go on a hike and next thing you know, you’re in the wilderness. There’s no place like that.”
Fly fishing became part of the father-son bonding process. They took local classes in how to tie flies and it soon became the Thompsons’ favorite outdoor pastime. Catching a hard-fighting salmon on a fly rod was a challenge Nate couldn’t get enough of.
When he got older, the endless sunlight of Alaskan summers allowed Thompson and his friends to do a “suicide run” down to the Kenai, which is a lot less sinister than it sounds.
“You leave your house at, say, 8 or 8:30 (p.m.), then drive about an hour and 45 minutes to the Russian River,” he says. “You fish and catch your limit and finish – depending on how fast – and whether it’s midnight, 1 or 2 in the morning, you then drive back home. The benefit of that is still mostly light outside. You don’t have to worry about it getting dark on you.”
“That’s one of the perks of being in Alaska in the summertime.”
IF SUMMER WAS A time for using a net to secure a salmon or trout, winter meant nets of a different kind. Thompson would lace up his skates and never be far away from a frozen pond.
“I think that’s where I improved the most as a player, playing hockey outside,” he says. “We would have practice (indoors) at 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and there was an outdoor rink right next door. We’d take all our gear off and put on our hats and gloves and walk to the outdoor rink.”
Thompson and the other kids in the neighborhood spent the available daylight hours to hit the Mother Nature-created playing surfaces.
“All day, every day, whether it was playing for whatever club team I was with, or me just skating outside with my buddies,” Thompson says. “And then when it started to get warm outside, the hockey gear went away … Every weekend we’d go fishing.”
But since this is Alaska, winters are looonnnggg, so all that time on the ice would pay off for Thompson, who joined future National Hockey League players Matt Carle (Alaska Sporting Journal, January 2015) and Tim Wallace and played together for a local youth team, the Alaska Stars.
At his side for all the games was his family. Sarah Palin might be the state’s “celebrity” hockey mom, but Cathy is one of many unsung matriarchs shuttling their sons and daughters to 6 a.m. practices and tournaments in far-flung cities and towns all over North America.
“Talking about the games, the practices, the big fish that we caught – those are the things that you just never forget,” Thompson says of his parents. “They were a team and my mom was definitely a hockey mom and my dad too was a (hockey dad). We’d have games on Saturdays and they’d be in the stands freezing their butts off bundled up in a parka jacket with a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. My poor sister had to be dragged to the games. I still hear about that from her. But they were great and very supportive.”
Remember all those pickup games Thompson and friends would play? Dad would frequently be waiting in the car, heater blasting, with lunch from McDonald’s once they took a break, after which they’d head back out for another four hours of skating. Cathy wasn’t sure what to make of her young son’s proclamation that he’d be a professional someday, but clearly the kid was onto something.
It’s no wonder that all the practicing helped Thompson excel at Anchorage’s Dimond High School, and then in the major junior hockey circuit with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds, with whom he was selected 183rd overall by the Boston Bruins in the 2003 NHL Draft.
Thompson made his Boston debut in the 2006-07 season and has enjoyed a solid career, playing for the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning before getting to Anaheim. It was in Florida where he got the chance to play with his childhood friend Carle, who’s also part of a close-knit fraternity of Alaskans in pro hockey.
“We probably had played together for six or seven years growing up all over on youth hockey teams,” Carle says. “It was a cool experience, because Nate and I kind of went different ways. We got drafted in the same year and I went to go to college (University of Denver) and he went into the Western Hockey League (Seattle Thunderbirds). So we kind of came full circle. We played against each other a lot in the NHL, but that opportunity to be on the same team was pretty special for those two years, and it will be memorable when we look back on our careers.”
They’d been friends and teammates since boyhood. Sleepovers at each other’s houses usually involved hockey talk or makeshift games of some kind.
“We started playing together when we were 6, 7 years old and played together on every team, but when we went different routes we stayed in touch, and have been close ever since,” Thompson says of Carle. “He was the best man at my wedding, and to be able to later on play for the same NHL team – as best friends growing up – is something I’ll never forget.”
(Tampa Bay became even more nostalgic for Thompson since Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman was hired as the Lightning’s general manager during Thompson’s four-plus seasons there. His favorite player and team growing up was Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings. “He was the ultimate pro and ultimate leader who did everything right,” Thompson says of Yzerman.)
The Lightning traded him to Anaheim in the summer before the 2014-15 season, where he’s been a valuable contributor to a perennial postseason team. Only injuries have slowed him down. Thompson missed the first 25 games in 2015-16 after undergoing offseason left shoulder surgery. Then last summer, while working out he ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right foot. Another operation shut him down until he was able to return to the Ducks’ lineup on Jan. 31 against Colorado, which – even as a player in a sport known for toughness – has been a remarkable recovery timeline.
“I feel really good. During the time when I was injured and rehabbing, I think the biggest thing in why I’ve been feeling so good on the ice is I didn’t waste any time,” he says. “Even when I was in a walking boot I was working extremely hard off the ice. I made sure I was ready to go when I hit the ice.”
When Thompson returned and seemed to make a seamless transition back into the lineup, Ducks coach Randy Carlyle told the Orange County Register that Thompson was a “glue guy” on the team.
And sure enough, while he’s not the prolific goal scorer as hotshot youngster Rickard Rakell or Anaheim mainstays like captain Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Thompson nonetheless is the kind of player who endears himself to coaches for understanding his role. Thompson fits nicely as the Ducks’ fourth-line center (teams run four forward lines). That fourth unit traditionally isn’t expected to produce a lot of goals – Thompson has 48 career goals (with 63 assists) in 550 total games – but instead establish a physical forecheck – applying pressure along the boards in the offensive zone – and occasionally generate scoring chances. In his injury-limited season, he picked up an assist late in the season and scored a huge goal in Sunday’s season finale against the Southland rival L.A. Kings that clinched the Pacific Division title.
As a center, Thompson also takes a lot of faceoffs and helps out on the Ducks’ penalty kill when the team is shorthanded.
“He’s someone we needed. He’s a specialty player – blocks shots, plays his role,” veteran Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times when asked about Thompson. “All the teams that win Stanley Cups, they have those guys, and those guys are big parts because they do the right things and all they worry about is doing the little things. They don’t get credit, but the guys in the room give ’em credit.”
And he’s skilled enough to chip in with goals when needed, scoring twice in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs series with Nashville. Not that Thompson or his teammates have a lot of memories from that postseason. The Ducks lost in seven games, which has become a trend for one of the NHL’s best teams of the past few years but lost in a seventh and deciding home game of a series for four consecutive seasons, two with Thompson on the team.
So there’s a sense of unfinished business with these Ducks, who feature a nice blend of established veterans (Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan Kesler and Cam Fowler) mixed with some young emerging talent (Rakell, Hampus Lindholm and John Gibson). Anaheim’s dressing room is well aware that the players will be judged on what happens in this month’s postseason starting with the Calgary series.
“I feel like we have a team that’s built to win now and I think we have everything to win a championship,” he says. “Hopefully we can go on a nice run and I can bring the (Stanley Cup) back to Alaska.”
WHEN THEIR FAMILY COMMITMENTS and other circumstances allow it, the Alaska hockey gang reunites in the summer and goes on a fishing trip. Former college and pro hockey player Brian Kraft, who operates the Bristol Bay-based Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge (fishasl.com), hosts a bunch of puckheads. The group includes Thompson, Carle, Wallace, ex-NHLer Joey Crabb and others.
“(Kraft) can usually book out a weekend for all of us yahoos and we get to fish for a couple days,” Thompson says. “Just a good couple days since we’ve known each other for just about our whole lives.”
He’s also shared so many wonderful days in the field with not just family and friends but his beloved black Lab, Diesel, who loved to swim the same waters his owner/dogfather fished in.
“I’ve been always been a dog lover, and my dad had three Labs. I first had Diesel when I was 20 and he went through a lot of cities with me,” says Nate, who lost Diesel at 11 years old last June. “He was my first dog, and it was tough. Losing a dog is losing a family member.”
But a new four-legged son, yellow Lab Eddie, joined Thompson’s growing family, which also includes son Teague, who turns 2 in May (Nate is now a single dad). For obvious reasons, Teague takes up a lot of possible fishing time, but someday Dad will introduce the next generation to Alaska’s fishing waters. Snoopy rods might not be Teague’s first piece of gear, but it’s the spirit of the Last Frontier that will be part of Teague’s legacy in the future.
Just like his father. ASJ
QUEST FOR 30-INCH TROUT DRIVES CHILDHOOD HOCKEY BUDS
In hockey lingo, they call it “lighting the lamp” when a player scores a goal. Childhood Alaskan fishing and hockey bros Nate Thompson and Matt Carle are on a personal quest to turn on the red light.
This is a story of two Alaskans in search of the holy grail. But this doesn’t involve a goblet and Indiana Jones’ last crusade to find it, but instead it’s a 30-inch rainbow trout they have vowed to land during their return trips to the Last Frontier.
Carle, the same age as the 32-year-old Thompson and a longtime NHL veteran who is also from Anchorage, remembers one trip to the Bristol Bay area where both anglers came agonizingly close to beating each other to the punch.
“It was the last day, our last chance that we’d have at a fish,” Carle remembers. “And I caught mine and it (measured out at around) 29½. And then within an hour or two Nate caught a 29½-incher. That was probably one of the most fun days I’ve had while fishing.”
It was breathtaking for each to witness the other’s rod bend heavily upon the strike and see that gorgeous trout leaping from the river’s surface.
“You think, ‘Wow, this could be it,’” Carle says. “We get both the fish and you measure them but they’re a little bit short. Of course, that’s always going to keep us coming back.”
They were even in the same boat when it happened, though Thompson says his was closer to 29 inches.
“We were both so close,” Thompson says. “I think he still got me by half an inch. Someday we’ll both do it; it’s just a question of who gets the bigger one.”
“It’s an excuse to go back up to try and go up and catch one,” adds Carle, who began his career with the San Jose Sharks. “So when I do actually catch one, I guess the next thing will be to try and top it. I certainly have a place on my wall for that fish to get mounted.”
On a different trip, the guys were able to get to Alaska in the fall, when they’re usually busy with their jobs. But the league endured a lockout that delayed the start of the 2012-13 season until January.
“I thought that was going to be my opportunity because I able to go to the lodge when we could close it down; it was the first week of October, and as long as I was playing, it was going to be the latest I could get up there and get an opportunity,” Carle says.
But that late into the fall, the Kvichak River, which flows from Lake Iliamna to Bristol Bay, was flooding, creating a murky mess and tougher fishing than anticipated. It was unfortunate timing, given that the work stoppage allowed the guys a rare opportunity to fish when they normally were starting their seasons.
“We still had a great time and caught some nice fish,” Carle says. “But nothing over the 30-inch mark.”
Carle, after being traded by San Jose, went onto a nice career with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers (reaching the Stanley Cup Final with both teams before falling short against the Chicago Blackhawks both times). Carle retired during the 2016-17 season and may have the leg up on his buddy with more chances to fish as Thompson continues his hockey career. But the guys are rooting for each other in this quest.
Whenever Carle and Thompson can get away with their families, they head back home and join other friends to fish at Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, where they know the trout – especially the ones over the magic 30-inch plateau – are waiting.
“I think (lodge owner) Brian Kraft has it rigged,” Carle jokes. “That way we’re always coming back.”
Thompson doesn’t expect any trash talk if he or Carle reach the milestone length before the other.
“I think it’s just going to be two guys looking at the fish and then looking at each other,” he says. “Besides, we’re both competitive and there doesn’t have to be much said.”
A holy grail of a trout speaks for itself. CC
THESE ARE NOT THE BOSTON BRUINS
As you might expect, Nate Thompson has a lot of stories from fishing in Alaska. This is just one that came to mind:
“If you’ve seen those postcards of the bear catching a salmon jumping up a waterfall, we went to that area, Brooks River Falls in Katmai National Park. And we were fishing there for rainbow trout, and the bears are just there to look for salmon, but they’re all around you. At this park you can’t even bring ChapStick because the bears can smell it.”
“But we’re fishing there with the bears, and we had an indicator on the end of the line, an orange bobber. And one of the bears was kind of behind and was moving back and forth and would get out of the way as we were walking. The bear saw the orange bobber at the end of the line and started charging at the line. The bears, when they’re in that water, will cut through the river like butter, and one of the guys with us wasn’t from Alaska and thought the bear was charging him and not the line. He basically jumped on the end of his line, dove in there and kept swimming across the river. He had to check his shorts after that.” ASJ