Kirk Thompson is in elite company when it comes to Prince George Spruce Kings netminders.
The Surrey product sits third all-time in single-season wins with 24. He achieved it in 2012-13 and sits only behind Evan DeBrouwer’s 26 in 2017-18 and Logan Neaton’s 32 wins in 2018-19.
However, on the topic of all-time wins since the Spruce Kings joined the BCHL, Thompson is at the top of the mountain with 46. His journey to Prince George began after a pair of seasons at the BC U18 AAA level with the Valley West Hawks and Fraser Valley Bruins.
Like most rookies who make the jump to junior A, Thompson endured several growing pains.
Mired in a rebuild after the 2007 Royal Bank Cup, the Spruce Kings found themselves at the bottom of the Interior Division during the 2010-11 regular season, going a dismal 13-40-1-6.
Thompson proved to be one of the lone bright spots. He suited up in 39 games and recorded a 3.80 goals-against-average and a .890 save percentage.
“It was really a unique experience because when I made the team I didn’t know how much I was going to play. We had a starting goalie at the time who was a 20-year-old who committed to Princeton and was pretty highly touted. It became pretty apparent as the course of the season wore on we didn’t have a very good team.”
Coming out on the wrong side of the scoreboard night in and night out proved doubly tough on the netminder’s psyche.
“Obviously, it’s always mentally taxing as a goalie when you are not very competitive, but there was always an opportunity to be able to steal games, which is something I took a lot of pride in. We had to earn every single win.”
“I remember my first (win) came against the Vernon Vipers and I think they had won three national championships during those few years (before) so it was pretty cool to beat them. It’s just one of those things where you are very fortunate to play a lot more than I thought that year. (I) was able to gain experience to go into the next two seasons and have more success on a team that was better in front of me.”
Even though the road felt long, the baptism by fire approach allowed the youthful Spruce Kings to gel more quickly.
“When you are playing with house money you don’t have a hell of a lot to lose. Especially, as a goaltender, you have the opportunity to steal every single game – some nights go better than others but you have the same goal every time you hit the ice.”
“I think the focus for that year was everyone was so excited for the future because we had a young team. We made some moves to invest in the future of the program and it paid off over the next few years,” added Thompson.
The Spruce Kings were one of the biggest surprises of the 2011-12 BC Hockey League season, turning out a record of 33-21-2-4, a 40-point improvement from the previous season.
Thompson’s on-ice numbers took a turn for the better too. He posted a record of 15-14-0 in addition to a 2.83 goals-against-average and a .906 save percentage.
“You just saw a lot of things come together as we were the team that ended Penticton’s insane winning streak that year. We didn’t have the success we wanted in the playoffs, but we had a season that we could be proud of after what we went through the year before. It was a pretty remarkable turnaround.”
In addition, the progression was aided by a change behind the bench where Ed Dempsey was given the boot and was replaced by Dave Dupas.
“Ed was an old school kind of coach and Dave was a fresh breath of air for the Spruce Kings organization. He was able to attract some really good players and implement a style of play that was exciting. Dave played that first line (of Khaira, De Jersey, and Colantone) and trusted them – he was the coach that brought it all together.”
“The biggest thing is that the culture needed to change. I am not going to say that it was toxic, but it was a losing environment and (it was good) getting a new coach in there who was much more positive. We focused on bringing in some quality people and that translated into wins. I would say everything was a lot more positive.”
Unfortunately, the Spruce Kings were swept in the Interior Division semifinals against the Merritt Centennials.
Thompson is the Spruce Kings workhorse
In his third and final season with the Spruce Kings, Thompson was leaned on heavily. He played a whopping 50 out of 56 games. He went 24-21-0 while posting a 2.82 goals-against-average and upping his save percentage to .915.
Prince George didn’t have the same level of prolific scoring in 2012-13, but it was a lunch-bucket group that saw seven players reach double-digit goal totals.
“We had a good group of guys that found a way to win close games all the time. For myself, I got to play in 50 games that season and it was the best thing ever. That was probably the highlight of my career, being able to play that much.”
“We could play against anyone, we didn’t have a roster that compared to some of the top teams in the league, but we could win on any given night, which was pretty special.” The Spruce Kings stalled in the postseason again, dropping a five-game set to the arch-rival Chilliwack Chiefs.
Change of heart
Thompson initially committed to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts, and was gearing up for the big move by getting some ice time during the summer of 2013.
As fate would have it, a decision to play on a senior hockey team altered his path.
“I committed to AIC right before the end of the season and I spoke to a handful of schools, with Nebraska-Omaha being one of them, but (they) never formally put down an offer. I had gone to play in the summer at the North American championships with an Adult Safe Hockey League team where you have a lot of college and pro guys that play.”
“I was on a team called First Class out of Vancouver and we ended up winning the tournament. As it turns out, we had a bunch of Nebraska-Omaha alumni on the team and they reached out to the former coach and said ‘You got to come (and) get this guy’. The coach called me up, matched my offer and it became pretty apparent (it) was the place I wanted to be.”
Momentum with the Mavericks
Thompson was heavily relied upon in his freshman season with the Mavericks. He suited up in 15 games and posted a record of 5-5-1 with a 3.08 goals-against-average.
UNO played in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, which is considered the strongest in the entire NCAA. The NCHC includes powerhouses like the University of North Dakota, the University of Denver, and the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
The Mavericks solidified a 13-9-2-1 record but lost to Denver in three games in the quarterfinal series to wrap up 2013-14.
“When I got there I didn’t know what to expect, but we played in an awesome 17,000 seat arena called the CHI Health Center. It was such a transition playing with a lot of guys who were NHL Draft picks and at a completely different level.”
The following season proved to be Thompson’s most memorable at UNO where the team went 12-8-4-3. They were led by future Pittsburgh Penguins star Jake Guentzel, who was the top-scorer with 39 points.
After getting bounced out by St. Cloud State in the quarterfinals, the Mavericks got hot at the right time and found their way into the 2015 NCAA Division I tournament.
“I had split time with my goalie partner Ryan Massa and by the end of the year he got really hot and his numbers were (better). We kind of rode him through the tournament there and we were able to make it to the Frozen Four. We had some really great players at that time and it was cool to see.”
“Growing up in Vancouver, you don’t think about Omaha, Nebraska as having much of a hockey fan base but during that run, it was apparent the entire city got behind us. Omaha is more of a hockey city than people give it credit for, between having UNO in town and the (US Hockey League) Omaha Lancers. Hockey is pretty ingrained in the culture.”
In Thompson’s third and final season with the Mavericks, the program opened up Baxter Arena, a 7,000 seat facility on-campus.
“We have an entire mixed-use district around our rink in Omaha and it’s a $100-million state-of-the-art facility and a lot of the money was donated from the community, which just goes to show how enthusiastic they are about hockey. I think the community donated about $50-million to build this rink for the university and the school came up with the other half. We have a lot of bars and restaurants that can get pretty lively, which is always exciting to see.
“We average 6,000 fans a night, which is pretty good for college hockey.”
— Passau Hockey (@PassauHockey) October 19, 2015
He had the fortune of picking up the first win in the new facility defeating Air Force, but the Mavericks tumbled in the standings in 2015-16, icing a mark of 8-15-1.
Thompson completed his undergraduate degree in three years and made the jump to grad school. To make his pursuit of a master’s degree easier, he got it paid for after taking a graduate assistant role with the Mavericks for three seasons.
“It was kind of cool because I got to coach guys I was playing with the year prior. It was an interesting transition and I am actually still involved with the team as a goalie coach, so it’s kept me closer to the program for a longer period of time than if I would have kept playing. I take pride in giving back to the program that gave so much to me.”
Thompson still lives in Omaha with his finance Ava, who is a former captain of the Mavericks women’s soccer team. He is currently the Business Management Consultant at 88 Tactical Group, which is a self-defense and educational facility focused on responsible gun ownership.
It is part of City Ventures, which is the fastest-growing privately held company in the state of Nebraska.