It took him a dozen years, but Rocky Thompson has finally made it back to the National Hockey League. The 36-year-old Cree was hired as an assistant coach by the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday.
Thompson, who appeared in 25 NHL contests, spent the past four seasons working as an assistant coach with the Oilers' American Hockey League affiliate the Oklahoma City Barons.
Prior to that, Thompson, who grew up in Whitecourt, Alberta, had served as an assistant coach in the junior ranks, with the Western Hockey League's Edmonton Oil Kings.
Thompson played 10 seasons of pro hockey and spent the majority of his time in the minors before retiring as a player in 2007. He last played in the NHL during the 2001-02 season, appearing in half a dozen matches with the Florida Panthers.
"Every day since then, I've tried to get back there," Thompson said about his stint with the NHL.
Thompson is the third Native currently coaching in the NHL. Ted Nolan (Ojibwe) is the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, while Craig Berube (Cree) is the Philadelphia Flyers' head coach.
An Oilers' coaching opportunity became available in June when Steve Smith, who had worked as an assistant in Edmonton the past four years, took on a similar job with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Shortly afterwards Thompson called Edmonton head coach Dallas Eakins to inform him he'd be interested in the position. During his job interview, Thompson stressed how he felt he could help the Oilers. During his stint with the Barons, Thompson would watch the first two periods of each game from the press box, and then join the team on the bench for the third period of action.
Besides Eakins, the Oilers also have an associate coach (Keith Acton) and another assistant coach (Craig Ramsey). It is expected Thompson will be in the press box for Oilers' games and relay any necessary messages to the bench.
"I'm comfortable wherever they want to use me," Thompson said. "Just like when I was a player."
Thompson was known for primarily being a physical player during his career. No doubt this stems from the fact he was an amateur boxer during his teen years, winning provincial championships and a gold medal at the 1993 North American Indigenous Games.
Though he planned to continue his NHL career in 2007, Thompson opted to begin his coaching career instead. That's because the expansion team, the Oil Kings, were joining the WHL that year and he felt it was a perfect opportunity to commence his coaching career in his hometown.
Thompson earned his share of positive reviews working with the junior-aged players with the Oil Kings.
His coaching style has been well received.
"One of my strengths is teaching fundamentals," he said. "I had to become very detail oriented when I was playing."
"With the players nowadays you have to explain to them why you're teaching them what you are," he said. "And once they get that, they respect you more."
Though his goal of making it back to the NHL is now complete, Thompson is still not satisfied.
"Ultimately, I want to be a head coach," said Thompson, who inked a three-year contract with the Oilers. "When I talked with Dallas I told him this is a goal of mine."
"I'm young," he said. "I'm only 36-years-old. I've got a lot left to learn, but a lot to give as well."