So, the burning question today is, who exactly is Claire Thompson?
Thompson is something of a late bloomer, except she isn’t. The Toronto native turned 24 just last week, but her only IIHF experience before Beijing came at the 2021 Women’s Worlds, where she registered four assists in seven games en route to gold. She was never much on Hockey Canada’s radar for the U18 team, which is to say that she was invited to camp one time but didn’t make an impression early and was cut pretty quickly.
“Not that I lost hope, but I figured my style of play wasn’t what the national team was looking for,” Thompson said at the time, when it seemed hockey was going to take a back seat to education. “So I definitely just kind of focused my energy not into proving them wrong but trying to become a better player for my college team.”
That college team was the Princeton Tigers, where she had a terrific four-year career from 2016 to 2020 under coach Cara Morey, who actually recruited her as a forward before converting her to the blue line. Thompson balanced hockey with academics successfully, and was nominated for many awards that combined the two. She wrote her thesis at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which was quite a feat while also trying to spend as many hours on ice trying to develop as a player.
“[Morey] always encouraged me to just play the game how I wanted to play it,” Thompson said. “But also learning to balance trying to make a play or set someone else up for success, versus the safe play, is something that I definitely grew into across my four years [at Princeton].”
“She’s one of those high-risk, high-reward players, but for us, her rewards way outnumber her risks,” Morey said by way of the coach’s point of view. “She can see the game a couple steps ahead of most people, so she can anticipate where the puck is going to need to go. She knows when to distribute it, when to take her shots, when to rush. She’s brave, and you need that when you’re back there.”
Thompson tried to see the ice better and develop a greater confidence with and without the puck. But what she always had was a tremendous shot, a valued asset on the blue line, and even more so in the women’s game where a big shot from the back end is crucial to team success. At the start of her fourth year, Thompson was named team captain and led Princeton to the ECAC championship. Her full potential was never realized, however, because the 2020 NCAA playoffs were cancelled because of the pandemic.
Interestingly, Thompson was teammates with Sarah Fillier with the Tigers for her last two years (2018-20), but while Fillier rose to the top and was a clear superstar, Thompson flew under the radar for the most part. Fillier played at the 2017 and 2018 WW18s and shone. Thompson didn’t play at all.
Right after her four years at Princeton, however, Thompson and Fillier were both invited to camp for the 2020 Women’s Worlds. While it was a positive experience, the tournament was also cancelled because of COVID-19, so we will never know how they would have fared in that tournament. But what we do know is that they would have been on the team as Hockey Canada announced the roster as a sort of tribute to what might have been.
“Making the 2020 Worlds team was a complete honour and quite honestly came as a bit of a shock to me,” Thompson said when she heard the news. “Having only played two [exhibition] games with the senior team, I thought it was unlikely that they would take me given how little experience I had. Although Sarah is younger than me, she has far more experience at Hockey Canada than I do, so it has been nice having her at the different camps and such to look to.”
After graduating, Thompson joined the PWHPA, meaning she was part of the elite group of women players looking to establish a top-level pro league in North America. She then played at the 2021 Women’s Worlds, winning gold, and soon after was invited to the centralization camp for the Olympics, which she navigated successfully.
We are only one game deep into the Beijing games, but already Canada has a blueliner who has given coach Troy Ryan a dimension he might not have expected. We no doubt will continue to watch and talk about Fillier, but maybe number 42 on the blue line will also get more attention in the coming days thanks to her breakout performance in game one.