How Wolves coach Rocky Thompson became one of AHL's most respected leaders
From the start, Daniel Carr knew he was going to love playing for Rocky Thompson.
"You can see the Northern Alberta in him where he's got no time for soft," said Carr, the MVP of the American Hockey League this season. "First game I was here, Rocky said something and I was like, 'OK. This is going to be good.'"
And, boy, have the Chicago Wolves been good since Thompson was named head coach in 2017.
Back-to-back division titles and 86 victories in 152 games. And now a berth in the Calder Cup Finals against the Charlotte Checkers. Game 1 is Saturday in Charlotte.
NO TIME FOR SOFT.
It so perfectly sums up Thompson -- the respectful, tame, button-down coach who was anything but those things growing up in Canada.
Thompson began wrestling at 9 and boxing at 14. He was so good that -- even while also honing his skills as a hockey player -- Thompson won the Alberta Golden Gloves, the Saskatchewan Golden Gloves, the Alberta Provincials and much more.
Admittedly a step slow on the ice, Thompson used these skills to impress hockey coaches and quickly moved up the ranks. He was drafted in the third round by Calgary at 17 and played 12 games for them at age 20, but Thompson's career was largely spent in the AHL where he racked up an eye-popping 2,012 penalty minutes in 605 games.
'Woke a lot of people up'
After closing out his playing career with the Peoria Rivermen in 2007, Thompson cut his teeth as an assistant in the Western Hockey League and in the AHL in Oklahoma.
Dallas Eakins then made Thompson one of his assistants with Edmonton in 2014, but the Oilers went 24-44-14 and the entire coaching staff was dumped. Everyone expect Thompson, that is.
Suddenly in an odd sort of employment limbo -- because, after all, who knew if the new staff would want to keep him around -- Thompson decided to stick his neck out at that summer's coaching symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I phoned George Kingston, who ran it at the time, and I asked him if I could be a presenter," Thompson said. "And he said, 'Yeah. For sure.'
"They're always looking for people to do presentations. Not a lot of people want to do it because you're sharing your own stuff with everyone. People are guarded and some people are just intimidated."
But not Thompson. He figured he had nothing to lose and went for it.
Thompson, who had 20 goals as a pro, chose to speak about offensive zone schemes. His talk -- in front of a packed room that included everyone from Scotty Bowman to Mike Babcock -- was the first one of the day.
Said Thompson: "They were thinking, 'What in the round world is Rocky Thompson going to talk about? Offensive zone and tactics of all things!' They told me they thought it was going to be a train wreck."
But guess what? He absolutely killed it.
"People found a lot of usefulness out of that presentation -- pro and amateur alike," Thompson said. "That's why I was so proud about that presentation. Its simplicity could be applied at any age level."
Said Wolves GM Wendell Young: "All of a sudden they're blown away by this articulate guy that ran an unbelievable presentation. … It woke a lot of people up."
A job offer came only moments after Thompson was done speaking.
"Bob Boughner came up to me and said, 'How would you like to be the head coach of the Windsor Spitfires?' " Thompson said. "I started laughing because I knew 'Boogie' and I'm like, 'Well, YOU'RE the head coach of the Windsor Spitfires. What are you talking about?'"
Turned out Boughner, who also owned the team, was leaving to take a job in the NHL, and he wanted to interview Thompson for the soon-to-be vacant position. After talking with Boughner and general manager Warren Rychel, Thompson accepted the job and eventually led Windsor to a Memorial Cup championship in 2017.
"I'm very grateful to them to give me that first opportunity as a head coach," Thompson said. "They built a good team."
Hungry as a Wolf
What Thompson has done during his two years in Chicago is nothing short of remarkable.
Last season, he walked into a situation where he was coaching two franchise's prospects at once. That's because the AHL didn't expand to 31 teams when the NHL did, so the Wolves were carrying St. Louis' and Vegas' players.
After earning everyone's trust, the Wolves clawed their way out of the cellar and racked up 80 points in their last 55 games to claim a Central Division title.
This season, the Wolves were pounded with injuries, saw leading scorer Brandon Pirri get promoted to the Golden Knights and lost key players at the NHL trade deadline.
None of it mattered. They just kept winning.
"I really like Rocky -- and I really mean that," said Carr, who led the Wolves with 30 goals and has 100 games of NHL experience. "He's very intense during the games. But if you speak to him 1-on-1 or if he comes in the dressing room between periods, he's a very poised guy.
"And that goes a long way because a lot of coaches get on a roller coaster. He really doesn't. That's one reason we've been able to have a lot of success this year."
Another reason is because Thompson understands how to be a player's coach while also delivering harsh, cold reality when needed.
"I'd go through a wall for this guy any day," said Keegan Kolesar, who took Thompson's shoot-first advice to heart and scored 13 goals in the season's final 32 games. "He's helped me so much in my career so far."
Making adjustments at any level of coaching is critical to one's success. Spot an opponent's trend and adapt. Move a third-line guy up to the first line because he's on fire. Tweak the power play. Change the goalie.
Do whatever it takes to gain that little bit of advantage.
It's this "chess match" part of the game that Thompson absolutely loves.
"That's where the hard work comes in," he said. "It's behind the scenes when nobody's watching."
So Thompson watches hours of game tape. And when he finds a weakness or a tendency, he pounces and goes for the throat -- just like he did in the ring or on the mat.
"Boxing's called the sweet science for a reason," Thompson said. "It's a tactical sport. Even though it's violent and it's aggressive, it's tactical. With wrestling, it's the same thing.
"As a hockey player, I had to be tactical because I couldn't rely on my abilities as a skater. I had to intimidate and I had to read plays really well because I had to be a little bit further ahead in my mind than I could be with my legs because I couldn't react.
"It teaches you to think ahead. So I apply that to the way I coach, too."
With almost no NHL coaching vacancies, it's a near certainty Thompson will be back with the Wolves next season.
Down the road, though, he figures to punch his ticket to the big time.
"He will eventually coach in the NHL," Young said. "I talk to a lot of people around the game, especially in the management section. He garners a lot of respect.
"Pro hockey people know who Rocky Thompson is now. It will take time, but it will happen."