Paul Thompson is the most successful British ice-hockey coach of the last 20 years. He began his coaching career with the Solihull Blaze under-16s, after a horrific back injury had ended his playing career.
He worked his way up to head coach of the first team, where he dealt with several financial crises, the relocation of the club to Coventry and then masterminded their rise to the top of ice-hockey in this country. He is now in charge of the Great Britain national team and one of the most respected coaches in Europe.
Thompson was born on the 5th April 1968 in Solihull. He was a regular visitor to the local ice-rink and it was there that he stumbled upon ice-hockey for the first time and fell in love with it.
Thompson went to the rink to skate and found that there was an ice-hockey match taking place. It was Solihull Barons against the Altrincham Aces in the old British Hockey league and, even though this was a much lower level than the one at which he now coaches, Thompson was mesmerised. He immediately joined the Barons under-10s and hockey was a huge part of his life from then on.
Despite growing up in a rich area, Paul and his brother Mark, who was quickly bitten by the hockey-bug too, had to save up for months to buy the expensive equipment they needed to play the sport they loved.
Over the next decade, the brothers would play as much hockey, watch as many hours of action from the National Hockey League in North America and attend as many Barons’ games as they possibly could.
They progressed through the age-groups and soon gained themselves a reputation as hot prospects due to their huge enthusiasm for the sport and ever-improving skill. Mark proved to be a competent net-minder while Paul settled in the right-wing position, relying more on his strength, determination and powerful shot than any puck-handling skills or natural speed.
Despite a lack of exceptional natural talent, Paul soon found himself, a 16 year old, playing for the under-19s and with the potential to graduate to the senior side in a few years.
Playing days and injuries
In 1984 disaster struck. In a game against Oxford under-19s Thompson was checked whilst turning with the puck, causing him to fly backwards and fall across the boarding at the edge of the rink.
This severely injured his back and eventually ended his career after almost ten years of playing through pain. He was never able to get as much flexibility in his shoulders and back again and any time he took a hard check he would be in agony.
However, Thompson persevered with his playing career, determined to make an impact on his beloved sport. He did make it through to the Barons’ first-team and played in the British Division One, the second highest division at the time.
Thompson eventually moved to the Sheffield Steelers in 1991 at the beginning of their period of domination of British ice-hockey. Thompson was part of the impressive British contingent of players for the Steelers who backed up the Canadian superstars. Despite not being given much time on the ice, he was a favourite with the fans and registered two goals and twelve assists during the season. He was given the name Paul “Rocky” Thompson by the Steelers’ eccentric media-man, Dave Simms, because of his stocky build and tenacious playing style.
A move to coaching
Thompson stayed in Sheffield for a season and then returned to Solihull for a brief spell but had to retire in 1993 due to persistent back pain and sciatica in his legs. This, however, was only the start of his involvement in British ice-hockey.
His innate understanding of the sport and his passion for it led him to attempt a career in coaching. In 1994 he was appointed coach of the Solihull Barons under 16s and had a successful period in charge of this team and the Barons’ reserve side, during which time he brought through a group of impressive and tenacious youngsters, including future Coventry Blaze stars, Kurt Irvine, James Pease and Gareth Owen.
Meanwhile the Solihull Barons struggled in the newly formed British National League (BNL) and midway through the 1995-96 season their Head Coach, Andrew Graham, left the club. The directors were struggling financially and could not afford to appoint an experienced coach so opted to make Thompson, at the age of just 27, head coach.
The next season and a half was a difficult period for the rookie British manager, after inheriting a team languishing at the bottom of the league and full of arrogant and unmotivated players.
However, by the end of the 1996-97 season he had turned the team into a competitive one by bringing through hungry young players from the reserves and threatening to sack anyone who did not give their all for the club.
Thompson also made some very shrewd signings who went onto become legends of British ice-hockey such as Bobby Sandrock and Steve Carpenter. He also recruited talented Brits like Les Millie.
The Blaze rise from the ashes
Despite this improvement in fortunes the Barons were still in dire financial straights and the club had to be liquidated in 1996. Lifelong fans, Mike Cowley, Andy Buxton and Grant Charman decided to buy the club and rename it the Solihull Blaze.
They kept Thompson as coach, gave him decent financial backing and hoped for the best. Little did they know the club would become the biggest success story in British ice-hockey history.
After the liquidation the Blaze were forced to play the 1997-98 season in the lowest division in the country, the English Division 1. Thompson used many of the youngsters he had been bringing through in the previous seasons, including Irvine, Pease, Perry Doyle, Stephen Doyle, Rob Eley and Paddy O’Connor.
They thrived in the lower league with more ice time to showcase their growing talents. Thompson was also able to use his contacts from his playing days, as well as his impressive enthusiasm and ambition, to attract a high-quality of foreign players (known as imports).
He retained three of his best players from the previous season in Millie, Steve Chartrand and Luc Chabot who showed their class, by scoring well over 150 points (goals or assists) each during the season, and their loyalty, by sticking with the club despite the severe drop in wages and standard of hockey.
Thompson’s team won the league and the playoffs in 1998, winning most of their games by at least 5 goals. They also built up a fiery rivalry with the Milton Keynes Lions. Both sides were promoted into the English Premier League (EPL) for the 1998-99 season.
Thompson added to his squad with the signings of experienced forwards, A.J Kelham and Chris Kelland from BNL clubs. Once again the Blaze dominated the league, despite having to battle harder to win games; they won the league title, the EPL cup and the playoffs.
British National League
In 1999 Thompson decided to re-enter the club into the BNL. This was a huge step up and he knew that they would not sweep to victory as easily as in the past two seasons. They came 7th in the 1999-2000 season but put an impressive run together in the playoffs and were narrowly beaten in the semi-final by the eventual champions, the Fife Flyers.
The season was a learning experience for Thompson; he had given his young team the chance to play at a much higher level and had learned where he needed to improve.
Thompson and his directors knew they needed a newer and bigger stadium if they were to move the club onto the next level, so in the summer of 2000 the Coventry Blaze was formed. The team was to play at the new Skydome ice-rink in Coventry.
Thompson knew it was a risk and he, the directors and the players did their best to advertise the team in the city. The first few games were played in front of just a few hundred people but this grew throughout the season with the success of the team.
Thompson introduced ideas such as giving away tickets to schools and youth clubs in order to get people interested in the club. By the end of the season, over a thousand people were attending each game.
Thompson had brought in players who were experienced at this level, such as eventual top-scorer that season, Hilton Ruggles, Swedish defender Matty Soderstrom, and French forward Claude Dumas.
They started brilliantly and led the league by Christmas but could not maintain their form and eventually slipped into a run of poor form, finishing fourth in the league and failing to make the playoff semi-finals. But the foundations had been laid for a successful future for ice-hockey in Coventry.
Trophies and Team GB
By this time Thompson had been recognised as one of the best up and coming coaches in British ice-hockey. His career took a further boost when he was appointed assistant coach of the Great Britain team in 2001.
Head coach, Marty McSorely, was working in Switzerland at the time and wanted to use Thompson’s knowledge of the British leagues and players. Thompson went to the 2001 and 2002 World Championships with Team GB and this gave him valuable experience and allowed him to expand his hockey knowledge and contacts.
The 2001-02 season brought Thompson so close to winning his first BNL silverware, as the Blaze came second in the league and lost in the finals of the BNL Cup and the playoffs. He kept much the same team from the season before but with the addition of British ice-hockey legend, Stephen Cooper and temperamental but brilliant forward, Steve Roberts.
The Blaze enjoyed a titanic battle with the newly formed Dundee Stars and eventually finished five points behind the Scottish outfit in the league and lost 8-7 to them in the two-legged playoff final.
The next season was of huge importance to the club and to Thompson’s career, as the Blaze won both the BNL title and the playoff crown. Thompson brought in the superb British forward, Ashley Tait and experienced Canadian, Joel Poirier from the Nottingham Panthers.
He also signed Swedish star, Andres Moborg, to partner Ron Shudra, who played with Thompson at Sheffield in the early 90’s, in defence. Thompson proved he was adept at signing newcomers to the country as Jody Lehman was signed up as the net-minder and had a stellar season, winning the award for Most Valuable Player in the league.
The Blaze led the league from the first weekend onwards. They lost the BNL cup final in January 2003 against Newcastle, a team they beat 8-0 the following week. This defeat devastated Thompson and he was on the verge of quitting, feeling as though he could never lead the Blaze to a major trophy.
However, he resolved to carry on and the team responded to their cup disappointment by putting together an incredible run which took them to the league and playoff championship. The league win was secured with a 3-1 victory in Dundee and then the Blaze came from behind to beat the Cardiff Devils in the playoff final.
The Elite League
The following season Thompson and his directors decided to take the team into the newly-formed Elite League, now the top league in the country. They could easily have remained in the BNL and been one of the better teams but they were ambitious and wanted to move to the next level and make the Blaze the biggest club in the country.
In the first season Thompson stayed loyal to his BNL double winning team and kept most of the same faces. They put in brave performances throughout the season, upsetting most of the established clubs to finish third.
They were in contention for the title until the last few months of the season when the lack of an “enforcer”, a designated fighter, and fatigue amongst the players, took its toll and they struggled for points.
The last game of the 2003/04 league season is one of the most infamous nights ever seen at the Skydome as all the players were involved in a huge brawl after Thompson threw a punch at Ivan Matulik of the Cardiff Devils, following a dangerous check on 19 year old Russ Cowley.
Three players from each side were ejected from the game and Thompson was banned from the bench for the whole playoff campaign, in which Blaze finished bottom of their group.
The Grand Slam
After this Thompson once again showed his famous knack of learning from disappointment, as he recruited one of the most successful teams British ice-hockey has ever seen, who went onto win the “Grand Slam”.
He dispensed with long-serving but tiring players such as Soderstrom, Ruggles and Chartrand and brought in a bigger, younger and tougher team. These included hard-men, Andre Payette and Wade Belak, the first Blaze player to have played in the NHL.
Thompson also brought in star forwards, Dan Carlson and Adam Calder, whom Thompson claimed were “born to play together” and defenceman Neal Martin who is still with the Blaze and whom many consider to be the best player the club has ever had.
This team cruised to the Elite League title finishing ten points clear. They also won the Challenge Cup, after demolishing Cardiff in the final, and the Playoff Championship with newly crowned captain Ashley Tait scoring an over-time winner against the Nottingham Panthers.
The Blaze were not a popular side amongst other teams and their fans, as two more brawls against the London Racers and the Newcastle Vipers suggest, but by the end of the season no-one could deny that they had been the best team that year. Thompson was named Coach of the Year for 2005.
A disappointing season
Blaze were a victim of their own success as Calder and Carlson, who both finished in the top five point scorers, were poached by European sides offering them more money. Belak returned to the NHL whilst Payette went to Newcastle, after rumours of a fall-out with Thompson, and Lehmann was lured to the Sheffield Steelers.
Undeterred by this, Thompson went on to build a new side, recruiting new stars, including ex-NHLer Barrie Moore and Belak’s brother, Graeme. But the side could not recreate the same form as their predecessors and suffered after a poor start.
They came fourth in the league, heart-breakingly losing on penalties in both the final of the Challenge Cup and the final of the newly formed British Knock-Out Cup, and failed to make the playoff semi-finals.
The season did have some highlights, however, such as the club’s participation in the European Cup, in which they performed well, and the re-capture of Adam Calder half-way through the season on a two-year deal.
The 2006-07 season was a return to form for the Blaze as they came within two games of another “grand-slam”. They finished on top in the league after a close battle with 2006 champions, the Belfast Giants, and won the Challenge Cup after an incredible 5-1 win in Sheffield against the Steelers in the second leg of the final.
They were denied the playoff championship by the Cardiff Devils in the semi-finals. Thompson was once again awarded coach of the season. He managed to lure back Dan Carlson after an unsuccessful period in Germany, and he and Calder both had fantastic seasons. Ex-NHL hardman, Rumun N’Dur, and star goalie, Trevor Koening, were also added to the team.
Thompson cites one of his proudest moments as a coach, as a game in the European Cup in November 2007, when the Blaze defeated Red Bull Salzburg, who are amongst the biggest clubs in Europe 3-2 after coming back from two goals down.
That night was one of many successes in another fantastic season for Thompson, in 2007-08, as they close in on yet another league title. They are also in the final of the British Knock-out cup and are hotly tipped to record yet another three-trophy season.
Becoming national coach and looking to the future
In late 2006 Thompson was named coach of the Great Britain team. He was chosen for his experience as assistant in 2001 and 2002, his knowledge of the players and his reputation as a great motivator and shrewd tactician.
Thompson outlined his plans to have more regular team gatherings throughout the season and to work harder on youth development. He managed to coax GB-legends, Tony Hand and David Longstaff, out of retirement for the 2007 World Championships and the team showed a marked improvement on recent years as they narrowly missed out on a medal after some good performances against established international sides like France and Germany.
In February 2008, Team GB defeated Lithuania, a team ranked much higher than them in the world rankings and Thompson described himself as “prouder than you could ever imagine”.
Paul Thompson has been the main catalyst in the Blaze’s rise from a financially crippled club struggling in the lower leagues, into the most consistently successful club in British ice-hockey and a force in European competitions.
He has said many times that he would love to be a coach in the NHL but for now he continues to build an impressive dynasty with Coventry, whilst taking the national side forwards. Thompson is an ambassador for hockey in Coventry and Britain as a whole and regularly attends conferences around the world to learn new ideas and extend his contact network.
Whether he ever coaches in North America is yet to be seen but whatever happens, it is certain that Paul Thompson will be known, in this country at the very least, as one of the biggest names ever to be involved in the sport he chanced upon over 30 years ago.