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Flyers’ Nate Thompson tells Alaska’s next generation to do his home state proud

Thompson, just one of just 14 Alaskans to play in the NHL, held an impromptu visit Wednesday with a visiting Alaskan AAA team.

Flyers forward Nate Thompson, center, poses with Team Alaska who came to watch him practice in Voorhees, NJ, on Wednesday. The 16-year-old team was in Philadelphia for an exposure exhibition series.
Flyers forward Nate Thompson, center, poses with Team Alaska who came to watch him practice in Voorhees, NJ, on Wednesday. The 16-year-old team was in Philadelphia for an exposure exhibition series.Read moreGiana Han

As the Flyers started practice Wednesday afternoon, a group of 16-year-old boys wearing black hoodies with a light blue “A” for Alaska, piled into the rink to watch.

For the next hour, Flyer Nate Thompson went up to multiple people to point out that, those, boys there? They’re from “God’s Country.”

“He’s so proud to see Alaskans,” said Matt Thompson, the boys’ coach who knows Nate Thompson but is no relation. “That’s kind of normal for Alaskans, too. They’re very proud of where they came from. So it’s really cool to see him going around, smiling, saying those boys are all from Alaska, just like me.”

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The Alaska-based team landed in Philadelphia at 5 p.m. Tuesday after a 7.5-hour flight. They came to play in the Eastern Exposure Series from Nov. 19 to 21, but one of the first things they did was head to Flyers practice.

Since they were in the area, Matt said it was the “perfect” chance to go see Nate Thompson. The hockey community in Alaska is small, Matt said, so he knew Nate from growing up in the same rinks. Matt used to skate with Nate when the player returned to train in the offseason.

All of Matt’s players are 21 years younger than Thompson, but they all know who he is and follow his career because he’s one of just two active NHL players from Alaska. Thompson has played the second-most NHL games (825) among Alaskans, behind only Scott Gomez (1,079), a guy Thompson looked up to as a young player and is now a close friend.

The other current Alaskan NHLer is Boston Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman, whom the Flyers will face Saturday. He and Thompson worked out together in Alaska over the summer, and when they played each other on Oct. 20, they posed for a photo.

“He’s already a really good goaltender, and I think he’s going to be a really good goalie in this league for a long time,” Thompson said. “It’s awesome to see another young player from Alaska do well.”

Matt was hoping to take his players to the Bruins-Flyers game, but they have games of their own that conflict. But just getting to see Thompson practice was a big deal for players who don’t have many others like them to look up to.

“The game hasn’t changed a whole lot in Alaska,” Matt said. “You’re still really far away from everything. ... So for them to be able to watch players from a small state of Alaska have success playing the game that they love, it gives these guys hope that maybe they’ll be there, too, one day.”

While hockey is popular in Alaska, where the weather is suited to a sport played on ice, not many Alaskans make it to the NHL. Alaskan players are so rare, only 14 have played in the NHL, according to QuantHockey. Team Alaska defenseman Max Lightwood said he keeps track of not only the NHLers but also the ones who get the chance to play college or junior hockey.

Matt Thompson said this is a result of a lack of exposure and lack of competition. Once their teams have played all the others in Alaska — and there aren’t many — the next closest teams are in Seattle, a 3.5-hour flight away. It’s not easy to make that trip for the sake of competition, and it’s not easy for scouts to make the trip to check out the local talent.

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For those reasons, this series is very important for the team to test itself against tough competition as it prepares to defend its regional title. It’s also important for the players as individuals to “have eyes on [them].” Nate Thompson said he remembers how crucial these tournaments were to his career, since they helped him to be seen as a young player.

Alaska doesn’t have an NHL team for the players to watch in person, although Matt imagines the younger generation might grow up Seattle Kraken fans. As a result, the players are fans of 12 different teams, including the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals, and the Colorado Avalanche. And there are, of course, some Bruins fans who cheer for the 22-year-old Swayman, an Alaskan just a few years older than them.

As practice ended, Thompson waved emphatically to signal the team to wait. After showering and changing, the Flyers winger came out to meet the players who are traversing a similar path to the one he walked two decades ago. Knowing how far they traveled, he said he wanted to make sure they had a good experience.

Thompson asked them what high schools they attend and found “only two!” go to his former high school (Dimond High School). He learned many of them played for coach Denny Sorenson, whom he described as “a piece of work,” which made the players laugh. Thompson also said Sorenson played a huge part in getting him to where he is now.

The Flyers winger then asked the players if they had any questions. They asked him who is the toughest player he has faced, what warmups are like, and if he plays soccer before games. (Thompson answered that he used to play but said he’s too old now and needs extra time to stretch.)

After taking a photo with the team, Thompson left them with three words: “Do Alaska proud.”

“You want to see players and kids from your hometown, male or female, do well,” Thompson said. “You want to make sure that you’re doing Alaska proud. And hopefully one of those kids one day will do the same.”