Cloverdale to Coach Thompson: UNO hockey coach continues impact on the ice

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Jordan McAlpine
CONTRIBUTOR

Thompson coaches players at Baxter Arena. Photo by Jordan McAlpine/the Gateway

“And between the pipes for the Mavericks. A junior, from Surrey, British Columbia. Number 29, Kirk Thompson!”

How time flies. Just a little over four years ago, Kirk Thompson was set to start one of the biggest games of his life, the inaugural game at Baxter Arena – fresh off a run to the 2015-2016 Frozen Four the previous spring.

“It’s crazy to think how fast it’s gone by, but honestly, that was probably one of the most special moments of my hockey career,” Thompson said. “Looking back, it was just a culmination of so many things. The Frozen Four, the banner raising, a sold-out rink – that had been 20 years in the making – it was kind of a dream of everyone that had finally became a reality for this program.”

Thompson celebrates on the ice when he was a student at UNO. Photo courtesy of OMavs

The hype to start that 2015-2016 season was special for sure, but for Thompson, it was the moments leading up to that season that made it what it was.

“That was just such an amazing run. To be able to win some big games that season heading into the tournament, and then go to the Frozen Four, it was just unbelievable,” he said.

Fast forward to December 2019, and Kirk Thompson still finds himself making an impact in that same rink for UNO hockey, this time as the Mavericks’ goalie coach.

After finishing his playing days with the Mavericks, Thompson joined the Omaha coaching staff as a graduate assistant coach in 2016. He has since moved on to become a volunteer assistant coach, a title he still holds today. Thompson’s primary focus is on the goalies.

A native of Surrey, British Columbia, (a suburb of Vancouver), Thompson got started on the ice at a young age, and not long after starting, he traded in the stick and gloves for a blocker and a set of leg pads.

“It was the first sport I took a liking to,” Thompson said. “Obviously, growing up in Canada, it’s a big thing that most everybody tries to start with. My parents kind of planted the seed—I learned how to skate and they signed me up for hockey when I was five. I skated out for the first couple games, but then I tried goalie one time and never looked back.”

From 2013-2016, the British Columbia native appeared in 42 games for the Crimson and Black, finishing with a 14-17-2 record, a 0.886 save percentage and 3.03 goals against average. But, his hockey story goes back to long before he ever stepped foot in Omaha.

“Growing up I played for Cloverdale Minor Hockey Association, which is one of the three associations in Surrey, and I played hockey year-round as a kid. I played my winter hockey for Cloverdale and played what they called ‘spring hockey’ back then for a few different teams,” Thompson said. “I traveled all around Canada playing, which gave me a chance to play with a lot of really good players, and that really helped my game.”

Thompson was a goalie for Cloverdale in his youth. Photo courtesy of Kirk Thompson

With his days of youth hockey behind him, Thompson’s next step would take him to the Prince George Spruce Kings of the BCHL, a place he said was instrumental in his development.

“It was awesome,” he said. “I went to Prince George as an 18-year-old, so a little bit older than a lot of other guys, but I got put in a position where I got to play a lot of games right off the bat. I saw a lot of rubber and had a lot of games where I was seeing 50+ shots a night, so that was great for my development.”

Thompson at Prince George. Photo courtesy of Kirk Thompson

During his third season in Prince George, the offers would start to come, and he knew he had a future in college hockey ahead of him. Thompson would make his initial decision in February of 2013, but it actually was not Omaha right away.

“From there I was able to commit, initially to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. But then I ended up – through some mutual friends who had played hockey at UNO in previous years – getting hooked up here. I de-committed from AIC, and I was all about everything that was going on in Omaha,” Thompson said.

A roll of the dice some may say, Thompson never stepped foot on the campus or even in the city of Omaha before committing to play at UNO, as he was still committed to AIC at the time. When the opportunity came up, however, he said he jumped on it with no hesitation.

“When I came here for the first time, I didn’t know if Omaha was the city or the state to be honest. I didn’t know if I was going to UNO, or the University of Nebraska, and it just looked like a bunch of cornfields,” he said. “I just knew it was a really highly thought of hockey program. I had reached out to a few people in the hockey community that I really trust, and they all said the same thing, that this was an awesome place to play. I knew it was a place I wanted to play, and looking back, it’s a decision I’m glad I made.”

Thompson was happy to commit to Omaha, even having never been to the city. Photo courtesy of OMavs

Unknown at the time, his stay in Omaha would go well beyond that first trip. For Thompson and his fiancé, this is now home.

In addition to his role with the hockey program, Thompson is a management consultant and oversees the business development for 88 Tactical group here in Omaha, where he has been since 2018. 88 Tactical is an elite firearm range and readiness training center for both civilians and law enforcement.

However, none of this would’ve been possible without a phone call from Dean Blais. Looking back on it, would Thompson have ever imagined things would’ve worked out how they have? He said no, and just figured he’d follow in the footsteps of his father Dave, who was a cop for 35 years, and younger sister Sophie, who is currently a cop back at home in the Vancouver area. As fate would have it though, that would not be the case.

“I came in with the intention that I was going to study criminal justice here at UNO. My dad and sister are both cops, and I wanted to be a cop, as well. I thought I was just going to study and leave after four years but ended up playing for three years and had an opportunity to jump into grad school, which I’m very grateful for,” Thompson said.

His fortune did not run out with grad school.

“With that, I was able to get my grad school paid for as a graduate assistant coach, and stuck around, did my master’s and met my now fiance when I was a freshman at UNO,” Thompson said. “She was a soccer player here, we both loved it here, and decided to stick around. It’s just kind of parlayed into what it is now. This is actually my fourth year of coaching—I’ve been coaching longer than I played here, which is really bizarre to me, and I never would’ve imagined that.”

The decision to enter graduate school was not an easy one, though, as Thompson had to forego his senior year season on the ice, and, as it is for any athlete, it’s never easy to step away from a game you love.

“That part was very difficult,” he said. “We had Kris Oldham coming in, who was an NHL draft pick, and there were going to be four goalies that year. I had to have a very honest conversation with Coach Blais, and he gave me two options. A, you can play, but I don’t know how many chances you’ll have to get out there, or B, we’ve got a great opportunity for you if you want to pursue your academics.”

He had to hear Blais out.

“If I would’ve played that fourth year, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. So, I had to ask myself, what’s my game plan with hockey? And honestly, I had no problem coming to terms with the fact I’m probably not going to make a lot of money playing this game. If I can be fortunate enough to take everything hockey had given me and turn it into a graduate degree and open some doors, that’s probably the adult thing to do,” he said.

Looking back, it’s all worked out for Thompson, but he doesn’t shy away from the fact the adjustment took a little getting used to.

“It was a little weird at first,” Thompson said. “My first year, I was coaching my best friends, so I really still felt like a part of the team. Now, I’ve stepped into more of a mature coaching role, but I still feel to some degree where I’m still one of the guys. I pride myself on being a sort of liaison between the players and coaches, since I’m closer in age, but there’s that fine line of being their coach compared to being their friend.”

A big part of his coaching today comes from experience as a player, but on a personal level, he just wants to see his group be at their best.

“I think the most rewarding thing is seeing guys get better,” Thompson said. “I’m not gonna lie, being a goalie is an extremely stressful position. There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders, and most nights you’re either the champ or the chump. I want our guys to feel like champs all of the time.”

While it’s still early, so far there has been a lot for Thompson to be happy with. Working with a group of three freshmen, as many expect, there will be growing pains along the way.

“We’ve got a hard-working group of goalies here, and it’s showing,” he said. “These guys have gotten so much better, and to have a crew of three freshmen, it’s not easy, and there’s a lot of pressure on these guys. But, I get a lot of my reward out of seeing these guys succeed.”

One of those three freshmen is Isaiah Saville. The Anchorage, Alaska native has carried most of the workload for the Mavericks so far, and recently was named to team USA’s World Junior roster. For Thompson, that’s not a surprise, and he says it’s been a joy to coach him.

“He has one of the best demeanors I’ve ever seen out of a goalie and he’s a great kid,” Thompson said. “His personality is second to none, he’s a great team guy and he works his butt off. He wants to get better and he’s a competitor, so if he just keeps going on this trajectory, he’s got a bright future, and I just want to give him the support he needs to be successful.”

For Saville, the feeling is mutual, and he says Thompson has had a huge impact toward the growth of his game.

“He’s just very honest,” Saville said. “Even if it’s not all positive, he’ll be completely honest with you because he just wants to see the best out of us. He’ll also help you maintain that confidence, and that goes a long way, especially with him being able to relate to us.”

With fellow freshman Austin Roden, who has started three games, the same can be said.

“I think I’ve gotten a lot better since I got here,” Roden said. “It’s a big jump from the BCHL to college, but they’ve done a good job in practice of pushing us and helping me develop with Kirk. There’s lots of support around here, so I think my game has already grown a lot, and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better.”

In addition to his work on the ice as a player and coach, one of the areas Thompson has made his biggest impact over his seven years in Omaha came in April of 2018. Tragedy struck back in his home country when a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team crashed near Armley, Saskatchewan. In the aftermath, 16 were killed and 13 injured, but it was a chance for the hockey community to rally together. In Omaha, 1,063 miles away, #Omaha4Humboldt was born and it was the Omaha hockey community’s time to shine.

“That was unbelievable. It’s crazy to think of all those people in Humboldt that were touched by the support of hockey fans here in Omaha. They thought, ‘wow, they’ve got a hockey community in Omaha, Nebraska, that’s willing to come together and raise all this money to help support us way up here in Humboldt?’ It just goes to show how special of a hockey community we have, and how we’re willing to support each other through the tough times,” Thompson said.

Part of “coming together” included an alumni game held on the Holland Ice at Baxter Arena, an event Thompson played a big part in putting together.

Thompson plays in the UNO alumni game. Photo courtesy of OMavs

“It was awesome. We knew we wanted to do something, and we actually had some fans reach out. They wanted to do something, they wanted to raise some money, so we put our heads together and came up with the idea of an alumni game,” Thompson said. “It was just super special to see so many different generations of UNO hockey players come together to try to raise some money for the families that were affected. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, whether you came over from Europe, down from Canada, or you were from right here in Omaha—it didn’t matter. Everybody was there supporting the same cause and it was just a testament to what a special place the Omaha community is.”

That special community hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially on the hockey side of things, and it’s a big part of the reason why Thompson is still here.

“The people. Everything from the current players and coaching staff, to the administration and fans, and alumni as well, this is a super special to play college hockey. To see all the growth on campus on both the academic and athletic side, it’s just a special place.”

With a shot in the dark to even come to Omaha in the first place and a gamble to walk away from his senior season, it hasn’t always been a smooth road for Kirk Thompson, but it’s safe to say it’s all worked out for the best.

“It’s turned out to be the perfect scenario. I owe a lot of the opportunities that I’ve gotten in life to my time here, and a lot of the people here at UNO—it’s just been a dream come true.”

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