Remember, “Rochelle, Rochelle, a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk,” the fictional movie from one of the Seinfeld episodes?
Well, Tommy Thompson’s on his own strange journey from Minny to Minsk. The exiting Wild assistant GM called me earlier this morning around 1 a.m. after he landed in Amsterdam on his way to Minsk for the Under-18s, a scouting trip that was delayed a week because of the Iceland volcano.
This is a “strange journey” because Thompson has been fired by the Wild. His job ends Sunday when he’s scheduled to return to Minnesota. He’ll fill out his final scouting reports, his final draft list and submit them, but he won’t be involved in anything that has to do with the Wild the next two-plus months before his contract runs out.
GM Chuck Fletcher wanted to give Thompson plenty of time to move on, and frankly, the Wild is so convinced Thompson will be employed by future Lightning or Rangers or xxx GM Doug Risebrough any day now, the team won’t include Thompson in any meeting in an interest to protect their internal info when it comes to its draft list.
I talked to Thompson about a wide variety of subjects, and as he’ll tell you below, he didn’t want to return even if they wanted him back. He planned to leave anyway. Thompson said he didn’t feel comfortable with the Wild’s “different culture.” He talked about some of his biggest regrets – for the first time on the record, he openly alleges that Roman Voloshenko’s sudden demise as a hockey player was due to substance abuse – and some of things that made him most proud.
Thompson, who said he actually met with Fletcher last week to discuss parting ways, also responded to a few things he read in my blog, which he received from three different friends upon his arrival in Amsterdam (so thanks for reading). I’ll miss Tommy because he’s just a straight shooter.
Here’s Thompson, the first hockey operations employee hired by Risebrough almost 11 years ago:
Why did you want to go on the trip still? “I was going anyway, and when you’re dealing with the Russians and that Belarus Airlines, you have to prepay the tickets. The tickets were all bought, so come here and finish up.”
Come as a shock to you or did you read the tea leaves? “No, it certainly wasn’t a surprise. What you said on your blog, when they made the changes last summer, I think it was pretty obvious to the rest of us that that’s what the setup was going to be (referring to if Chuck Fletcher and Jim Mill were handling Tom Lynn’s duties and Brent Flahr his duties, where did that leave him?). I mean I’m under contract for this season. I never had a discussion with Chuck on that. The way I am, I work to the end of my contract and go from there. But I think this is the right timing for the move. Chuck had indicated that he was not going to be offering a new contract and I had no personal beefs with anyone, but the reality is as people close to me knew, I was not interested in coming back either. I would have been prepared to work right through the draft. But from the management’s perspective, I think Chuck’s move was correct. The person who’s in charge of the draft and the preparations leading to the draft can’t be a person who’s not going to be there, however it’s going to happen. You’re dealing with the future of the hockey club there (he means internal intel like that should be secretive and not for the ears of somebody who won’t be with the team any longer and could be with another team shortly). It was quite amiable. Chuck said he thought this was the best time [to part], and I said I agree. When I get back, we’ll move on. It’s not any sort of contentious move at all. It was done very professionally. And there’s an element of trust he has in me that when I’m over here, I’m working for the Minnesota Wild and I’ll do my reports on the people here and prepare my final [draft] list and turn that stuff in.”
Why didn’t you want to come back either? “What I will say is this, there is a very different culture throughout our organization, and it’s not a culture in which I feel comfortable, so I think it’s best for all concerned that with that being the case, I should be somewhere else.”
Can you elaborate on what you’re talking about when you say ‘different culture’ and how it’s changed that you don’t feel comfortable? “It’s significantly different. And I think I would just leave it at that because as I say I have no personal beefs with anybody and also there was nothing during the year where I thought this was a terrible move that was made or not made. There’s nothing that had happened in personnel moves that caused me to be upset. I know you mentioned I wasn’t going to tournaments – I forget the wording – I have no complaints on that. I was at every tournament or game that I ordinarily would have been at. And as far as Brent being the guy quoted by you in the newspaper (I wrote on yesterday’s blog that it was clear Tommy was being phased out when it was made clear to me that Brent was now the go-to guy for quotes on prospects -- no longer Tommy), I never felt mistreated in that way at all. Brent’s the guy now and he should be the guy quoted. There’s no way that I felt my job was inhibited by anything that happened during the year. But the reality is you’re not going to go on with three assistant general managers, not in the climate of our hockey club right now (he’s including Mill). It’s as simple as that.”
Do you think the organization’s going in the right direction? “I hope so. I hope so. Sort of the ironic part about leaving now is I believe that our reserve list (minor leaguers, junior/European/college prospects) is probably in the best shape it’s been in since post-lockout. The one thing that the organization really did better this year was the use of the farm club (record 40 players played for the Wild, eight NHL debuts). The use of guys going back and forth that way, even the non-use where they tell a guy like Colton Gillies that ‘you’re there for the year, so don’t get upset when other guys are going to come back and forth. You’re there for the season,’ so there was no uncertainty. I thought it was well-done. Some of the guys that came up are pretty close.”
Do you have any regrets, like with the first-round picks or things like that? “The biggest regret – the only one that sort of gnaws at my gut is the Roman Voloshenko situation because you have to accept in this business that some of the guys you project to get to a certain level simply aren’t going to get there. This was a guy that was getting to that level pretty quickly and then we allowed it to fall off the table by not addressing the situations. I don’t blame anyone personally for that, but I blame all of us collectively. That’s probably the one that bothers me the most.”
When you say “situations,” are you talking about the substance abuse? “Yeah. I mean, and in a situation with older guys, we should have had that addressed and we didn’t do it.”
Russo note: Thompson has told me the last few years that Voloshenko was taken under the wing by a bad influence (i.e. player) in Houston during the 2005-06 season. Voloshenko, taken 42nd overall in 2004, had a tremendous rookie year with Houston in 2005-06 with 33 goals and 60 points in 69 points. He had a great world junior if I remember correctly. Then he fell off the map, scoring 11 goals and 30 points in 76 games before quitting the team in 2007.
“The biggest disappointment for me probably – he became a personal favorite of a lot of us – was Ondrej Fiala (2006, 40th overall), who I’m convinced would have been a good player. He was really coming into his own. And three knee surgeries later, he can’t play hockey. That’s probably one where it’s sort of like the situation’s beyond his control (Fiala wasn’t tendered a contract by June 1, 2008). That’s the only guy that I can think of whose career has ended with an injury like that. The poorest selection was clearly A.J. Thelen (12th overall, 2004), but I don’t like dragging his name through the mud. He never even signed a pro contract with us. He’s an amateur player … so he doesn’t deserve that.”
“ … We should have gone with what we had. … Mind you, we weren’t the only ones. I can tell you two other clubs in the league said if we didn’t take Thelen, they would have. We clearly did not know enough about him. The two guys we were bouncing around were Wojtek Wolski (21st overall to Colorado) and Lauri Korpikoski (19th overall to Rangers). And ironically they’re both teammates right now in Phoenix.”
I talked to you earlier this season about James Sheppard (ninth overall, 2006), and you were clearly very disappointed just because you believe so much in him: “The point is a lot of the discussions we’re having would have been different if James Sheppard was playing like we believe he’s capable of playing. You take a look – you made some comments on your blog about him not being a star in the Q – in fairness to Sheppard, if you look at his whole career, like a lot of centers, he’s gets about two assists for every goal. And again, I’m off the top of my head because I’m getting my bag [in Amsterdam], I think he had 96 points as an 18-year-old (Thompson’s correct). He scored a lot in the playoffs (20 points in 16 games) and took them deep into the third round of the playoffs; they didn’t have a very good team. And I remember reading his coach after [Cape Breton] had been eliminated saying, ‘I shook James Sheppard’s hand because he’s not going to be back with us next year. He’s done everything he can here. This guy will be in the National Hockey League.’ And if you look at the next year, when Team Canada wanted him for the World Junior, we didn’t let him go because he was playing regular for us. Did he have a great year? No. But he had 19 points and Jacques [Lemaire] broke him in. He played regular in the playoffs. I remember he made a nice play for a goal in Colorado. He played regular in the [three] overtimes. So at the end of that year, you’d have said, ‘This guy wasn’t great, but we’re quite pleased with him.’ …”
Russo note: By the way, editor’s note, I agree with all of this. If you remember, throughout and after this rookie year, I kept writing give him time, he can be a player, etc., etc.
“And where the falloff began was the next season. And then he came to the preseason this year, and again I’m going off the top of my head, but I think he had four points in six games. Just translate that [through 82 games]. He got a couple big goals on the road. I remember Chuck saying to me after the game in Philly (Sheppard scored a late goal in that preseason game), he was talking about the greatest guys in the game and he said, ‘Sheppard certainly showed what he can do.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s got to keep it up now.’ Clearly he didn’t. I mean, you go from 24 points to six? I mean even if he scored 24 points – what he had the year before – we’d have had some more points in the standings. We’ll see what happens with him. Sometimes with guys, you look at the Latendresse for Pouliot trade, some people can sit back and say, ‘why didn’t the two teams just keep those guys?’ Each of them was not playing well where they were. They both played way better since they moved.”
What are you most proud of in 11 years here? “The favorite year was the year we didn’t have a team. We were hired in September. We kind of stole a few scouts. We had a skeleton crew and we were preparing for two drafts (the expansion draft and the entry draft). There’ll never be another year like that. I think the fact that by the end of Year 3, we finished in the top-four in the NHL and our farm team won the Calder Cup in the American League when Todd McLellan was still coaching there. Those were highlights. … The other highlight for me was winning the division championship in ’08. If you look at it, we finished seventh overall in the league, in a tough division, in what was certainly the tougher conference. We should have beaten Colorado. We did not beat them. We used 26 players in that series and 13 of them had never worn another jersey. Now they weren’t all draft picks. Some of them were trades – the Aaron Voros guys, Niklas Backstroms. That was the high water mark and then some things happen in the offseason, we lost a few guys, and the next season wasn’t as good. Were we satisfied to be seventh? No. But we were very proud of it.”
Considering you had only nine picks in 07 and 08, you have to be happy with guys like Scandella, Cuma, Falk, Almond and Gillies looking like they’ve got a shot? “I don’t count any chickens until they’re hatched in this business, but it looks like those players will turn out to be pretty good. That’s why I say it’s sort of ironic now because I think the reserve list is probably in the best shape it’s been since the lockout.”
How much will you miss Minnesota? You’ve been here a fifth of your life. “I might still be living here. Who knows? We’ll just see what happens on a few things in the next little bit and go from there. We really enjoyed it in the Twin Cities. Both my sons have been through the school system here. Both of them have played, oh man, every sport imaginable – hockey, baseball, football, basketball, cross country and track, lacrosse – and been involved with a lot of community activities, so we got to know a lot of good people. We’ve enjoyed that part of it, and we liked it so much, we became American citizens.”
It’s no secret the Tampa job’s Risebrough’s if he wants it. There may be other things popping up – New York and the such. Will you be working with Riser again soon? “We’ll, I’d be very proud to work with him again. I don’t know what’s going to happen there. I have had a few discussions in the past week with some teams we’ll just see what happens. But yeah, I’d be very proud to work with him again if he’s back in the business.”