B ased on size alone, Tage Thompson is tough to miss in the whirl of blue, grey and white jerseys at Buffalo Sabres practice. But even without that six-foot-seven frame, Thompson would still demand attention. His shuffle-and-shoot is unmistakably that of a sniper. And when, during two-on-two drills, Thompson — in white — uses his soft hands to scoot the puck around his body and through his legs, the black disc looks like a tiny car skittering through his skyscraper stems. There’s also the fact he doesn’t hesitate to drop his shoulder and drive it, not once, but twice, into fellow behemoth Mattias Samuelsson when the 227-pound defenceman blocks his path to the net.
One day after the early-October training session, everything in Thompson’s arsenal is on display during Buffalo’s penultimate preseason tune-up. By the end of the first period, he’s got a goal and an assist on the board, the tally coming after he jumped out of the penalty box, picked off a pass in the Sabres’ zone, blew past Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Ethan Bear and eluded Pyotr Kochetkov’s poke-check attempt before sliding the puck into an open net. Then, late in the middle frame, Jalen Chatfield dropped Sabres centre Vinnie Hinostroza with a banger of an open-ice hit. Without hesitation, Thompson tore after Chatfield and engaged him in a fight.
From the outside, it’s fair to question what business a goal-scorer has trading punches with an undrafted 26-year-old who spent most of last year in the American Hockey League. Know this, though; that battler’s spirit has served Thompson well and is just one of the things teammates and coaches admire about him. “He had to grind,” says Mike Cavanaugh, Thompson’s college coach. “Now, watching him blossom, I’m not surprised.”
Thompson has had his share of challenges both at and away from the rink. Growing up, his family was always on the move — he’s lived in Arizona, Alaska and a lot of places in between — thanks to the fact Thompson’s dad, Brent, played and coached in a handful of hockey leagues, including 121 contests as a defenceman in the NHL. Everywhere he went, though, Tage had his best pal, younger brother Tyce, with him and there was always a dressing room full of new friends-in-waiting. Crisscrossing the continent opened Thompson’s eyes early on to the less-glamorous side of chasing your dreams and he’s grateful for the crash course in difficult realities. Nomad no more, he’s wrapped those big arms around Western New York and intends to hold the embrace. “Buffalo is a place I want to be for a long time,” Thompson says. “I think we’re building something special.”
I t’s hard to oversell what a huge winter last season was for Thompson. His 38 goals more than doubled the number he’d scored during his entire NHL tenure heading into the 2021-22 campaign, as “Tommer” paced the Sabres in both goals and points (68). Asked what jumps off the page about his linemate, Sabres left winger Jeff Skinner lays it out. “The ability to handle the puck at that size,” he says. “The combination is pretty tough [to defend]. It’s a combination you don’t see much, so it puts defending teams in a tough situation because not only is he good with it in tight [to] his body, but he can get it outside and you have to respect his reach.”
Huge as last year was for Thompson, his off-season may have trumped it. On Aug. 30, he put pen to paper on a seven-year, $50-million contract extension the Sabres first approached him about toward the end of last season. Thompson and wife Rachel also bought a house in the waterfront area and, best of all, the couple welcomed a son, Brooks, now three months old. “Just another thing to look forward to,” the new dad says. “Leaving the rink, coming home to see him now is always exciting.”
While Cavanaugh, Thompson’s bench boss for two years with the University of Connecticut Huskies, couldn’t possibly anticipate everything that’s happened for his old player, he did have a hunch big things were coming back in the summer of 2021. Cavanaugh was in Buffalo for a showcase tournament and got together for dinner with Thompson. “You could just tell he was a pro,” Cavanaugh says. “His maturity and his outlook and how he was going to attack the season. When I left with [Huskies assistant coach Tyler Helton], I said, ‘Man, he’s really grown up and he’s ready to take this on.”
If Thompson’s former coach sensed things were about to change, his current bench boss had a concrete idea about what might be a catalyst. For most of his time in both the St. Louis Blues and Sabres organizations, Thompson had played on the wing. Don Granato took over from the deposed Ralph Krueger in March of 2021 and during his first off-season as Sabres coach, he called Thompson — who spends summers training in Arizona, where he was born and his mom’s family resides — to float the notion of moving to centre. “When I watched him on the wing, it almost looked at times like he was stuck on the wall,” Granato explains.
Thompson, who played in the middle before pro hockey, was immediately all-in and there’s no denying the switch opened up a world of possibilities for a guy with heaps of creativity and vision. “You can add some deception to your game, whereas if you’re on the wall, you kind of only have one way to go with the puck,” Thompson says. “A lot of times your wingers are pushing the pace and they’re up in front of you, so I’m coming into the zone a lot of the time as a trailer, which gives me opportunities to find little pockets to get shots off.”
In Thompson’s first game last season, he collected a rebound against the Montreal Canadiens, cocked on the forehand and wired home a power-play marker from the left circle. In Game No. 3, he whacked home a greasy goal against the Vancouver Canucks, and he was off and running. “When you score one, it gives you that little boost and that little high, then you get hungry for the next one,” Thompson says. “That was a big thing for me, getting one early, that first game.”
Gratification, of course, doesn’t always come that quickly. While it’s probably a stretch to call Thompson a late-bloomer — the guy doesn’t even turn 25 until the end of this month — there’s no question the 26th overall pick from the 2016 NHL Draft has had some trying times both during his pro career and well before he was in the big league. As a 17-year-old, Thompson was anticipating a move to prep-school hockey at the Connecticut-based Salisbury School. At that time, Granato was actually a coach with the U.S. National Team Development Program, guiding a loaded cohort of players that included in 2013-14 Auston Matthews, Charlie McAvoy and Matthew Tkachuk. Granato was staying with that group of players as they moved up to the U-18 ranks, a team with a couple roster openings to fill. Thompson never saw himself on the level of those other guys, but went to a summer camp hoping get his name out there before going to prep school. Instead, Granato watched him play and put Thompson — along with another hopeful, current Anaheim Duck Troy Terry — on the squad. While it was an honour to make the club, it wasn’t easy joining a group with so many talented players, the vast majority of whom had forged playing and personal bonds the previous year. “I was fourth line, 13th forward,” Thompson says. “I remember that being a really tough year.”
That changed the following fall at UConn. Cavanaugh played Thompson in all situations, and he immediately responded. “Tage led the country in power-play goals as a freshman,” Cavanaugh says. “Always had a pro shot. His release and his shot was always NHL calibre.”
Thompson was selected by the Blues after his first season with the Huskies, returning to NCAA hockey to net 32 points in 34 games as a sophomore. Cavanaugh hoped he’d stick around for what the bench boss knew would be a dominant junior year, but Thompson turned pro. He split 2017-18 pretty evenly between St. Louis and the American Hockey League’s San Antonio Rampage and was part of a big package handed over by the Blues to acquire Ryan O’Reilly on July 1, 2018.
Thompson played 65 games under Phil Housley during his debut season in Buffalo and notched just seven goals. The next year, with Krueger at the helm, Thompson was slowed by a shoulder injury and appeared in just a single NHL contest in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign. Meanwhile, O’Reilly led the Blues to a Stanley Cup during his first season in Missouri, capping it off with playoff MVP honours. “It was a lot,” Thompson acknowledges. “I don’t think you necessarily, I guess in my case [anyway], realize the magnitude of it until you’re past it. It was a big trade, he turns around and wins the Stanley Cup. It adds a ton of pressure on you, especially as a young guy. But I think I had so many good people around me — teammates, family, coaches — that were so supportive. My dad was the biggest piece for me, I always lean on him whenever I’m going through something, hockey or otherwise. He gave me a lot of good messages I could fall back on that kind of put me at ease. A lot of it is out of my control, stuff I can’t worry about. The big takeaway for me was to focus on, ‘How am I going to get better every day to make my team better?’”
That certainly got easier when Granato — who joined Buffalo as an assistant in 2019 — took over for Krueger on St. Patrick’s Day of 2021. The Sabres were sliding into the abyss under Krueger and Thompson, who was in and out of the lineup, had one goal in 13 games while averaging 12:56 of ice time. In 25 contests with Granato at the helm to finish out that year, Thompson saw 14:22 of ice per night and scored at a 23-goal pace. Then came the message that Granato wanted to switch him to centre. “When Donnie told me that, I was kind of honoured he had that much faith in me,” Thompson says. “That’s a big ask, to move someone to centre and trust him doing that. That gave me a lot of internal confidence [because] I knew the staff believed in me and that’s kind of something I needed.”
While Granato was convinced Thompson was miscast as a winger, his conviction about who the player was went beyond X’s and O’s. The determination he saw from Thompson as a teenager trying to prove he belonged with the Matthews and McAvoys of the world was still there in spades as he worked through his toughest days in Buffalo. Now, the same attitude will be required to rise and meet the task of seeing the opponents’ best checkers every single night. “That’s exciting for me because at his age, with his stature, still able to get bigger and stronger, that’s going to actually accelerate his growth,” Granato says. “I would rather have him playing against top-pairing D than second- or third-pairing D, especially in the age window he’s in now.”
Thompson is certainly not at the life stage where you expect to get the news he and Rachel received during their first winter in Buffalo, when she discovered she had a form of bone cancer. She had surgery right away and every scan since then has been cancer-free, but the experience colours their life in visceral ways. “We definitely have gone through a lot together,” Thompson says. “I think it just gives you a greater perspective of life itself and all the things we’ve been blessed with. I get to play hockey for a living and I have a healthy family. That’s the most important thing. When Rachel went through her health issues for a year — and obviously still the fight is never over — but that year was definitely draining on us. But you come out stronger and with a bigger appreciation for things you have.”
The good things are certainly starting to add up. Tage is two years older than Tyce, a New Jersey Devils prospect, and the brothers have already squared off against each other twice at the highest level. And, of course, the boys still have dad’s brain to pick any time they want. For his part, Brent finally found a permanent home, having coached in the New York Islanders’ AHL affiliate in Bridgeport for the past eight seasons. In Buffalo, Thompson skates for an up-and-coming Sabres squad that’s 1-1-0 as it heads out to Western Canada this week and went 16-9-3 down the stretch last year. The dynamic on this youth-laden team reminds him of his cherished time at UConn, where dressing room camaraderie spilled into all corners of life.
“Just the fact you go to the rink every day, you play for each other, you compete for each other and then you leave the rink and you’re still hanging out,” he says. “All the guys live pretty much on the same street. It’s just a really close-knit group and it’s exciting that a lot of them are going to be here for a long time and that we have the ability to compete and win together and grow up together in our careers and try to achieve the same goal, and that’s winning the Stanley Cup.”
The roots are down and the arms may yet be raised.