You want to question the logic and value of signing Nate Thompson, the 36-year-old hockey player who will be suiting up for his ninth NHL club this coming season? Go ahead. Knock your socks off. There’s a legitimate debate to be had.
But when it comes to Nate Thompson, the human being, there’s no doubt the Winnipeg Jets have landed a winner.
Thompson has been to hell and back, fighting a longtime addiction to alcohol and drugs that took him down some very dark roads and nearly ended his life on more than one occasion. It’s the type of personal tale most would likely keep private, especially when under an intense public spotlight. But Thompson has recently opened about his past, with the hopes of helping others who find themselves in similar situations.
And on the day he was introduced in this market, the veteran centre who is known for his intense, physical on-ice play predictably pulled no punches.
“Certainly I would not be talking to all of you right now if I wasn’t sober. I wouldn’t be in this situation. I look at it as if I kind of have a second chance on life. I feel like I’m a little bit on borrowed time, now, being sober, so it’s extremely important to me,” said Thompson.
The 6-1, 205-pound Alaska native, with 767 regular-season NHL games on his resumé (62 goals, 94 assists, 366 penalty minutes), has signed a one-year contract with Winnipeg that will pay him US$750,000. The deal was completed on Saturday, which happened to be the four-year anniversary of the last time Thompson touched a drop of booze.
“It has changed my life for the better, it’s changed the lives of everyone else around me and I’m extremely grateful that I was able to celebrate that. It’s a one day at a time thing, so I’ve just got to keep going one day at a time,” said Thompson.
He first spoke about his difficult journey in a piece that aired last winter on Hockey Night In Canada when Thompson was playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Along with his wife, Sydney, he discussed taking his first drink around the age of 11, becoming a daily drinker by his mid-teens, and advancing from marijuana in high school to hard drugs such as cocaine by his mid-20s, when he was just starting his pro career with the Boston Bruins after finishing up a four-year Western Hockey League stint in Seattle.
Although he said he never played a game while under the influence, he showed up to many practices and game-day skates in a bad way. He mentioned former Anaheim Ducks teammate Ryan Getzlaf as first urging him to get help after seeing pictures of drugs and drug use on Thompson’s phone while playing in southern California five years ago. That began a chain of events that led to “rock bottom” and his entry into Alcoholics Anonymous.
“I was extremely apprehensive about doing that story,” Thompson admitted Tuesday when I asked him about going public.
“The biggest reason why I wanted to do that story wasn’t because of me, it was because if I could help just one person feel comfortable getting help or reaching out, then it was a win. That’s one of the biggest reasons I did that. It was a hard piece to do but I think it was worth it if I was able to help some people. And I did. I got some good feedback from a lot of people, reaching out, saying that it helped them in their recovery. Hopefully it helps some people ask for some help.”
He cited former Jets forward Devin Setoguchi, who has been candid about his own previous addiction issues, as being an important part of his inner circle. The two first crossed paths four years ago when Thompson was with Anaheim and Setoguchi was with the Los Angeles Kings.
“That’s the cool thing about going through this journey, there’s a lot of guys in the league that have gone through stuff like this and it’s kind of a small little fraternity that we can lean on each other and help each through it. It’s not something you want to do by yourself,” said Thompson.
Thompson and his wife just celebrated their second wedding anniversary, and the move to Winnipeg brings him closer to his five-year-old son, Teague, who lives in Minnesota with his mother. One of the highlights of last season came at Bell MTS Place, when the boy came up for a visit while the Canadiens were in town to play the Jets.
“It was special having him there at the game, and being able to bring him down to the locker room. That’s his favourite part, being in the locker room. I don’t know if he even cares about the game. It’s a pretty cool thing and I’m excited to be close to him this year,” said Thompson.
As for the on-ice product, Thompson will provide some forward depth, likely battling for a spot on the fourth line while adding some much-needed muscle and potentially helping the team’s penalty kill. He can be a mentor for 20-year-old David Gustafsson, the talented Swedish centre Winnipeg is grooming for that role.
There’s no question Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff loves these types of players, so-called “glue guys” who have strong character but are often frowned upon by those who cite analytics and see a player of Thompson’s ilk as hurting, more than helping, a team. The eye test often supports their position.
See Matt Hendricks and Mark Letestu as recent examples. There’s a likely reason for that — Cheveldayoff himself was that kind of player, during a junior and pro career that never took him beyond the American Hockey League.
There will be a couple familiar faces here in town, as Thompson has previously trained in the off-season with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. After previous stints in Ottawa and Montreal, he’s also excited about skating in another Canadian market.
“I think for me, being 36, I still feel like I have a lot of hockey left in me. And when Winnipeg came to the fold, I was excited. It’s been a team that I know being on the other side of it, playing against Winnipeg, it was always one of those teams where you knew it was going to be a tough night, especially playing in Winnipeg. So I’ve heard nothing but great things about the organization and I wanted to be part of it,” he said.
Four years sober. A second chance at life. And one day at a time. For Thompson, a guy who likely won’t contribute a whole lot on the scoresheet or wow anyone with his fancy stats, those are the numbers that truly matter.
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