Tage Thompson waited almost two months for his right shoulder to respond to treatment and rehabilitation. A return of strength and mobility might have allowed the Buffalo Sabres' 22-year-old winger to return to the ice at some point this season.
The breakthrough never came.
"Those two months were brutal," Thompson said during a phone interview with The Buffalo News. "It was kind of a waiting game."
Thompson grappled with the uncertainty until he and the Sabres decided that surgery was the best course of treatment. Although the procedure ended his season in January and began an arduous rehabilitation, Thompson finally had some clarity. Not for long, though.
The coronavirus pandemic canceled the American Hockey League season and the National Hockey League is concocting a plan to award the Stanley Cup this summer or fall. It's likely neither league will begin next season on time, either. A later start date will provide Thompson with additional time to prepare for Sabres training camp, but social distancing mandates have prevented him from skating during his recovery.
"I’m feeling good, shoulder is feeling good," he said. "I’m just itching to get back on the ice right now."
Thompson, the centerpiece of the July 2018 trade that sent Ryan O'Reilly to St. Louis, isn't resting much during the shutdown. The former first-round draft choice is using the additional time off to continue to add muscle mass to his 6-foot-6 frame. An emphasis on diet and lower-body workouts have helped Thompson gain 10 pounds since training camp last fall.
Thompson said he now weighs 225 pounds, an increase of 20 pounds since the end of last season, and he expressed hope that he can put on more weight once he's able to resume upper-body workouts. He gained approximately 15 pounds last summer through a 3,000 to 5,000 calorie-a-day diet and strength training.
"I worked really, really hard in the summer with my training and my diet," Thompson said. "I was skating a lot and put on muscle. I was feeling really good and really confident. I think a lot of that too is probably going down to Rochester at the end of the previous season. I think that helped boost my confidence after not playing a ton of minutes in Buffalo. I think that got confidence back in my game."
The plan propelled Thompson to an outstanding training camp under first-year coach Ralph Krueger. Thompson was among the Sabres' final cuts despite showing he could be an effective, skilled power forward for a team in need of scoring help. An assignment to Rochester didn't discourage him, either.
Thompson totaled six goals with six assists and a plus-5 rating in 16 games with the Amerks to start the season. There was noticeable improvement with his strength and speed. In addition to the goals and assists, Thompson was consistently generating scoring chances and made an impact on defense.
"I thought there was a disappointment with him coming out of training camp, but it didn’t affect his game at all," said Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill in January. "He knew exactly what he had to work on and he was excited to work on those things. If you look at, not just his status, goals and assists, in Rochester, but how much offense he was creating, the chances he was creating down there. It was great to see the strides."
Every aspect of Thompson's play showed marked improvement from his 65 games with Buffalo last season. Thompson was sent to Rochester last March after totaling seven goals with five assists and a minus-22 rating with the Sabres. He went on to score eight goals over 11 games with the Amerks, including three in the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The performance at the start of this season earned Thompson a recall when the Sabres were hit hard by injuries before they played the Blackhawks in Chicago on Nov. 17. He took his 11th shift of the game, and final of the season, with less than three minutes remaining in regulation and the Sabres trailing 4-1. An awkward play against Blackhawks defenseman Olli Maatta along the boards left Thompson in agonizing pain.
"I thought I played a really good game and it happened to be my last shift," Thompson said. "That’s kind of how those things usually work. I remember feeling it pop out and I was in a lot of pain right away. When I got back to the dressing room and things settled down, I was pretty bummed. I knew it probably wasn’t a good sign for the rest of the season. I knew I was going to be out, but I didn’t know for how long."
Thompson didn't panic. Previous injuries taught him how to handle the inevitable negative thoughts, and he maintained hope that proper rest would allow him to salvage the season. The Sabres, though, announced in January that Thompson underwent surgery and faced a five-to-six-month recovery.
Thompson isn't allowed to disclose an exact diagnosis, but he detailed how he's spending his days during the offseason. His weekly workout routine includes four, two-hour lower-body workouts, a Wednesday bike ride and three, 90-minute physical rehabilitation sessions near his home in Milford, Conn.
Although Thompson will need to be cleared by a physician, he is on pace to be at full strength in June or July. The timeline for recovery should provide him with ample time to prepare for what will likely be another difficult competition to make the Sabres' roster.
"It’s kind of a blessing in disguise," Thompson said. "I’ve got this time to put on strength, put on mass and use this time as fuel to round out other parts of my game that honestly were priorities for me. The strength and weight was a big thing for me. I’ve got this time to go ahead and do it. Now that the season is kind of been on pause for a while, too, it’s kind of like I haven’t missed too many games with injury. It’s a little bit of a silver lining, I guess."