July 23 2014 10:22AM
Rocky Thompson was named assistant coach of the Edmonton Oilers last week. He's only 36, but he already has seven years of coaching experience.
Many were wondering what will be bring to the staff? What will his role be? I caught up with Thompson last week to try and find out those answers.
Thompson spent an hour on TSN 1260 with me last week. He's a bright guy. He's also a pretty great athlete. He was a national junior boxing gold glove champion and a scratch golfer as a teenager, but hockey was his passion.
When Dallas Eakins hired Craig Ramsay he outlined that he wanted another coach on the staff, but not on the bench. His 3rd assistant would watch the games from the pressbox to get a different vantage point.
Thompson has been doing exactly that in OKC. We discussed what he hopes to add to the staff, as well as the difference in dealing with NHL players compared to young AHL players.
Gregor: Is this a role you’re very comfortable with, because you’ve been doing for the last few years in OKC?
Thompson: Absolutely. I’ve been the eye in the sky in Oklahoma City. I would spend two of the periods down in the press box and then I would come down to the bench and help Todd Nelson in the third period.
I would analyze the other team’s systems before in a pre-scout. I knew exactly what would be coming against us. I would let Todd and Gerry Fleming know before the game and then during the game my job was to see if there were any adjustments, see if they’re systems had changed. I’d look for what it is that we can combat in the sense, to counter what they are trying to do.
I focus on individual players that are maybe not having a good game on the opposition, people that we can expose. I identify players on our team who may be struggling, maybe young players that need teaching. I will log video as the game is happening in real time for the purposes of going down between periods. It could simply be just showing them a system thing.
Some players you can explain a system to and they can get it. Marc Arcobello you can talk to him and he can go right off of the bench and he can do exactly what you said. Other players they need a visual, they need to see themselves and they need to see where they failed and then be corrected in that situation. I think that it’s been an excellent tool for allowing our team, which was a very systematic team the past four years in Oklahoma, just to get us dialed in.
I also look at fundamental things. Guys get beat one-on-one and it could be a simple thing as you crossed over here and that’s what opened up the outside lane. Then you show them a positive clip saying here you’re doing it the way that we want you do to it and you can see the effectiveness. And once they get that and it clicks in, now you can hammer that fundamental into they brain and they can take it with them for the rest of their career.
***Interesting that he singled out Arcobello. The Oilers will need his hockey sense if they are unable to sign or trade for a veteran centre before October.***
Gregor: You were working in the American League with young players who were aspiring and trying to get to the NHL. Now you’re going to be dealing with the best of the best. How exciting is that, how different will it be as a coach?
Thompson: You know what, it was something that I always wondered. In the American League, how would a guy like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle respond to coaching that way? We got the answer during the lockout, and as special as they are with the puck, there are areas with their game that can be improved. There is no doubt. They’re just very young players in their early 20s’, just starting out their career and I know from my own personal standpoint that I’m not intimidated by how good a player is, how special they are, you can always improve. These kids are great guys at the end of the day as well, so they want to improve. They want to get better, but they’ll test you at the same breath.
Not even just Taylor Hall or Jordan Eberle, players that we have in the minors try to test you. They are coming from a way that they may have learned in college or major junior and we’re trying to change some of these habits that have been instilled over the years that just aren’t going to work anymore.
And we have to know what we’re talking about. We have to be able to communicate that to them.
In a sense it’s kind of funny because the coach in the old days, you did it just because he told you to do it. Now, we have to convince you and let you know why it is that we are telling you what it is, because today’s players are smart and more inquisitive. They test you as a coach, but if you know what you’re talking about, you’ll be able to get through to them and help them out no matter how high their skill levels are.
Gregor: When you worked in the American League, did you work more with defenceman or forwards or did you work with all of them?
Thompson: I worked with all of them and I played both positions my entire career. As a junior player I was a defenceman, but as I progressed as a professional I would literally play half a season on defence and then they would move me up to forward. Or I would start the season as a forward and then injuries would happen and I played the rest of the year on defence. And because of the type of player that I was, I was an enforcer, I didn’t have the highest skill level as far as skating or my hand skills. I had to learn details of the game to help make me more successful on the ice, shift in and shift out, from both positions.
And now, having learned to do those tricks, those little things that help you out see the game better, I can pass that on to players who are already great players, but it can give them another little added edge to their game.
Gregor: You always had to be a student of the game. For some there is a perception that enforcers don’t know how to play, they just know how to fight. I’ve interviewed a lot of players and you’ve always been one of the more insightful and intellectual guest. Did you always have an eye for the game or is that something that you learned as a professional and thought because your skill wasn’t at the same level as the other players, you’d need to learn the game more?
Thompson: Oh that’s what it was when I was 16 years old going to the Medicine Hat Tigers training camp. I looked around and they had first round draft picks, guys who were better skaters than me, who were bigger than me, who were way more talented than me, but they weren’t willing to sacrifice like I was willing to sacrifice.
I was just a kid, 16 years old and what I did was, I went right out and I fought whoever the veteran was on the other team. And knowing as a coach now, it’s very rare to find players who will do that type of thing because it’s not easy on you. I had to take a lot of lumps, but I was willing to sacrifice and willing to do those things in order to play at the highest level.
I went from a guy who had five points in my first year, I think I had seven points in my next year and then I had 30 points in my third year as a junior hockey player. My skill level started to improve, I started to be able to understand the game. I listened to my coaches. I was always able to follow a system really well. I got time on the power play at that point, I always had a heavy shot and I always saw the ice really well, I just wasn’t as fast as other players were and I couldn’t stick handle through guys like other players could do. But I did understand the game and had a good hockey mind.
And as my career continued to progress, I think that people have a misconception of me because they only see the fighter, and I get obviously typecast as that and of course they associate then that I must not be very smart, or I must not know the game as well. But like you just alluded to before I had to be an absolute student of the game because I didn’t want to only go out and do that stuff. I love the game of hockey and every single facet of it, but when I played that way, it helped my team be more successful, it helped my game improve.
I would play more minutes, I would be able to play on special teams and teams were afraid of me. I was able to, kind of, you know, take away some of the skill that was coming at me in a sense of speed. If a guy blew me wide then I made him play a price later on. I’d tell him this is why; maybe I would just jump him, throw him on the ice and scare him a little bit so that he wouldn’t play as well. If you score again when I’m on the ice, I’m going to choke you out or something. You know what I mean. And this stuff would happen, it would work and the next thing you know they’re a little bit more nervous or they’re looking over their shoulder. Of course I wasn’t never really going to hurt somebody, but being cerebral about how you approach that intimidation factor was very important and it worked.
Gregor: I still believe intimidation is part of the game. We’re not having line brawls anymore, but it still exists. How can players use it in today's game?
Thompson: It all depends on how you play a
player. I agree with you, we used to be able to target the head when we played,
when a guy had his head down, but thankfully the game doesn’t allow that
Let’s take fighting out of it, how do you make a guy pay a price? There are still ways of making the game uncomfortable for players, especially good players who don’t want to be in that situation.
And I think that there are a number of ways that you can do that and not be intimidated from, but at the same time it’s always better to be the hunter. If you have that mentality when you are playing, you are going to be more successful, and not just if you are a tough guy. Taylor Hall is a hunter in my opinion. He attacks the opposition and he is so hard to play against and that’s a form of intimidation.
When you see him coming down the wall with all of that speed, it scares guys.
For guys who don’t have that kind of speed,
like Luke Gazdic, you do it in other ways. When he’s coming down the wall, and
he’s 240lbs and finishes his check hard and makes those guys pay a price when
he owns the front of the net by clearing out their defencemen when we are ready
to shoot, that is a form of intimidation because most teams can’t move him,
and then at the end of the day if you want to stand up to Gazdic, well good
luck, you’re going to be in trouble.
**I liked the Hunter analogy.
The Oilers need more Hunters. Players who will dictate how the game will be played, whether it is with skill, speed, smarts or brawn. I believe this trait has been lacking in Edmonton for a long time. They haven't had enough Hunters.***
Gregor: Can you outline the specific role that you feel that you’re going to fill on the coaching staff?
Thompson: Well I’m going to continue on in the press box, for sure. During the interview process with Dallas I explained to him exactly how and what I would do during a hockey game. I think it was some things that he wasn’t thinking that that would necessarily go on upstairs, but it was a positive thing and I think it was something that he would probably like to try.
Gregor: Could you elaborate on what kind of things?
Thompson: Obviously the system breakdown of the other team that we talked about earlier, and if there [are] adjustments that need to be made, etcetera. Also I will look for habits and traits on special teams, what’s coming at us; maybe it is something they’re not seeing on the bench.
But as far as the teaching, I would have video to log specific things for the purposes of either relaying down to the bench to articulate something. It could be replays of why is our forecheck not working and I have the ability to re-watch those clips and to kind of break it down in real time and give a quick explanation as to what it is that is causing the problem. And that could be to whoever, I could pass it on to Keith Acton or Craig Ramsey in order to relay to Dallas what adjustment we need to make.
Things are happening so fast when you’re down at the bench level that you don’t always have the opportunity to always really slow it down, and break it down, and see what needs to change. So, I think that’s the purpose and benefit of being the eye in the sky.
But Dallas and I haven’t sat down yet since
I was hired to see exactly how he is going to implement me during the game and
what exactly he wants from me to give to him. That’s something that we still
have to go over and work out together, and at the same time I’m here for him
and I’m going to do whatever he likes to do. But I have some ideas that I think
have really worked well down at the minor league level and I’m going to present
those to Dallas
and see if that’s something that he would like to run with a little bit.
**It sounds like Thompson is well-versed in video and can pick up things on the fly and relay them down to the bench. That should be a welcome addition to the staff.***
Gregor: What about in practice? How do you see your role?
Thompson: I believe that I’ll be running a lot of optional practices when Dallas won’t be on the ice. It’s something that I did in Oklahoma City. I’m a very good practice coach. I run a lot of drills. Obviously I do a good job of explaining those things to the players, getting them to execute it well. That’s not foreign to me, I’ve been doing it for a long time now. Again, teaching, just on the ice I’m constantly teaching.
Gregor: Interesting that you bring that up, Struds [Jason Strudwick] jokingly said that he had more bag skates than anybody in the history of the NHL, however the thing that frustrated him the most was that he always felt it wasn’t a positive for him to be bag skated. He’d have preferred to work on his skill development with the hopes of becoming a better player.
What’s your philosophy on how you run a practice for the extra players?
Thompson: No, I agree with you, there’s no doubt. I do take the approach that Jason does as well, but I think that you can blend them both.
I work on skill development; it’s being very taxing on the player as well. And that’s what a game is like, you’re going out there, you’re going 100%, but at the same time you’re doing skill drills, so it’s not just something that’s nice and slow.
You can do something at a high level, which an NHL player has to be able to do, that is something that is not only going to develop their skill, or increase it, but at the same time their conditioning level is going to be high.
I’ve been very creative with that because I, like Jason, was a Black Ace. I was up for almost two entire seasons my first two years as a Nation Hockey League player and only played 15, 20 games or something like that. I was constantly a healthy scratch for a lot of those games and I had to do all of those skating drills and I thought to myself the same thing as Struddy did.
I thought ‘man, I can do this with my eyes closed. What I have trouble with is puck handling. I need the puck on my stick in practice to improve'. So when I became a coach, I wanted to make it so that it was a little more enjoyable, a little more fun, add in elements of shooting, but at the same time still instilling some fundamental things that can really help a player out and become muscle memory. Then when they get out there in the game they are doing it naturally, because that’s something that I felt like I really could have used myself.
Thompson is confident he can help the Oilers and the coaching staff. He is brighter than people think, because many only remember him as the long-haired lunatic on the ice, but he's put in his time to learn the game.
I will touch base with him after 20 games to learn more about the specifics of his role and how Eakins is using him upstairs. The Oilers coaching staff will have a much different feel and insight to it with the additions of Thompson and Ramsey.
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