CALGARY — Tage Thompson knew all about the NHL life before his even began. The Buffalo Sabres' 21-year-old winger learned to skate in the former home arena of the Hartford Whalers, played hockey on frozen ponds in Alaska and once skipped school as a child to watch the New York Islanders practice.
Thompson and his family lived in 11 different NHL or AHL cities because his father, Brent, played 15 professional seasons — including 121 NHL games — followed by 13 years in coaching, including the past five as coach of the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Yet, Thompson's hockey journey is only beginning, and he is making an impact in his new home.
"I see the steps he’s taking, and he’s taking steps in the right direction," his father said in a phone interview this week during Bridgeport's road trip to Charlotte, N.C. "I do know there’s a huge upside, there’s a lot more he can offer. He's still only 21."
Brent, now 48, was a second-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 1989 and played parts of three seasons there before stints with the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes. Much of his playing career was spent in the AHL with seasons in Springfield, Mass.; Hartford, Conn.; Louisville, Ky.; Hershey, Pa.; Loveland, Colo.; and Providence, R.I.
Tage was born in October 1997 when his father was playing for the Phoenix Roadrunners of the now-defunct International Hockey League. His younger brother, Tyce, was born 21 months later and is now a 19-year-old freshman winger for Providence College. When the family moved, their mother, Kim, would handle most of the logistics.
Whichever team Brent was joining would recommend youth hockey programs in the area. Since they did not typically move until August, tryouts had been completed months earlier, so Tage and Tyce would have to skate in front of coaches separately to try to earn a spot.
They never had trouble making a team. In 2010-11, Tage had 52 points in 12 games with his bantam team in Anchorage, Alaska. However, he played only 14 games over the next two seasons because of consecutive knee injuries, including a partially torn ACL and broken leg.
When many young players his age were being considered for the Ontario Hockey League junior draft, Thompson was forced to watch and rehab.
"It was definitely bad timing for those injuries, especially those happening back to back," he recalled. "You never want that. … It was a tough couple years for me there. It definitely helped strengthen me mentally, being able to go through something like that. Knowing if it ever happens again I’ll be able to battle through it."
Upon recovering, Thompson was invited to New York's U.S. National Development Program camp but did not make the cut. Weeks later, he received a call asking him to attend their national camp and would lead all players in scoring.
He was invited to join the program and his career took off. Thompson had 32 points in 36 games as a freshman at the University of Connecticut in 2015-16. He was drafted 26th overall by the St. Louis Blues after his freshman season and went pro following his sophomore year.
Thompson split last season between San Antonio of the AHL and St. Louis, with nine points in 41 NHL games. With the organization intent on playing veterans, the Blues traded Thompson to the Sabres to acquire Ryan O'Reilly.
Thompson reunited with one of the many acquaintances he made during his family's travels. Sabres winger Kyle Okposo played for the Islanders when Brent was an assistant coach there from 2012-14. Tage and Tyce would hang out in the locker room after games and watched practices.
"Life definitely comes full circle," Okposo said with a laugh. "It’s been pretty cool to watch him this season. … The season kind of started and he wasn’t playing as much, he was kind of in and out of the lineup. It’s tough for a young player to go through. I think he handled himself extremely well. Extremely professional and mature for his age. The way he’s sort of turned it around the last couple of months has been pretty fun to watch."
Entering Wednesday, Thompson had six goals among 10 points with a minus-10 rating in 39 games. He played second-line right wing alongside Casey Mittelstadt and Conor Sheary Wednesday against Calgary, and plays on the Sabres' second power-play unit.
Thompson is still working to add weight to his 6-foot-6 frame. Only then will he be able to use size to his advantage. But Thompson is showing why Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill acquired him in the blockbuster offseason trade.
Thompson has an electrifying shot and has used his speed to make an impact in transition. He has opened eyes with both as of late, particularly with his five or more shots on goal in three of his previous seven games entering Wednesday.
Brent, who's coaching the Islanders' AHL affiliate, spends his few off days catching up on both of his sons' games and will send a short text message with observations and critiques.
"He’s a huge help," Tage said. "He’s obviously been through it and knows what it takes to be successful and stay there. He doesn’t want me to learn the hard way. He wants me to learn from mistakes he’s made, so maybe that way I’ll have a little bit of an easier path and be a little more successful hopefully."
Calgary is another "home" for Thompson. His grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins were at Scotiabank Saddledome for the Sabres' game against the Flames on Wednesday. Brent was born here and spent his offseasons training in Red Bank, which is roughly 90 miles north.
It's the latest of many surreal moments that seemed impossible to Tage not long ago.
"To be around it our whole lives and being a professional is a dream come true," he said.