Orangeville native propelled into National Hockey League

April 13, 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Pickford

It has been a week to remember for one Orangeville native as he finally realized a childhood dream in suiting up for a career-first NHL game.

Ever since he was drafted by the New Jersey Devils 96th overall in the fourth round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Ben Thomson has had but one goal on his mind – to don the famous blood-red jersey in the big leagues. Now, he’s just hoping to stay there.

Turning out for the Devils’ final three games of the 2016/2017 regular season – against the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings – Thomson ended his mini-NHL vacation with four penalty minutes, seven shots on goal and 32 minutes and 40 seconds of ice time playing alongside the likes of former Edmonton Oiler Luke Gazdic, Blake Coleman, Miles Wood and Joseph Blandisi on the team’s fourth line.

Speaking to the Citizen on Wednesday (April 12) morning, the 6’3”, 220-pound left-shot winger explained what it was like matching up against some of the biggest and best names in the world of hockey.

“It was a surreal moment when I found out I would be moving up and playing with New Jersey,” Thomson said. “On one hand I felt like it was a long time coming and it was great to finally get the chance and opportunity to show what I can do in the best league in the world, but then there was the kid in me that couldn’t quite believe what was happening.”

It all happened very quickly for Thomson, who recalled he was cooking dinner when his American Hockey League coach Rick Kowalsky phoned to let him know “there was a possibility” he would be brought up to play against the Philadelphia Flyers on April 4. With the promise of a potential NHL debut on the horizon, Thomson immediately called his parents back in Orangeville to fill them in on the good news.

The next day, when all was confirmed, his family booked flights down to New York, eager to watch Ben make his big league bow. Unfortunately, due to bad weather south of the border, LaGuardia Airport cancelled a number of its flights, causing the Thomsons to go to extreme measures.

“They made the decision to go and rent a car and then drove 10 hours down to Newark. It was a special moment having them down at the arena with me,” Thomson said. “Ever since I was an Orangeville Flyer I’ve had that incredible support and encouragement from my parents to keep pushing myself and moving forward, so it was emotional for all of us to be there while I realized my childhood dream.”

And while it’s important for professionals to forget their emotions and simply keep their minds on the task ahead, Thomson admitted he “got chills” when O Canada started to bellow throughout the Prudential Center, lifting his head to admire the wall of fans that had packed their way into the arena.

His first shift on the ice was a routine one for a bruising grinder, registering a couple of hits along the boards as he fought to keep the puck in the end zone. His second was perhaps even more routine – cut short by a blow to the face that required five stitches to close up. That was nowhere near enough to keep the eager local out of the game as he went on to register 15 shifts over the course of the night.

While the game ended in a narrow 1-0 defeat, Thomson was later presented with the Devil’s ‘Hard Hat Award’ – dished out to players who demonstrate a willingness to fight and work hard for the team – post-game for his efforts. Sitting in his cubicle after the game, surrounded by his family, Thomson was able to reflect a little on just how big a moment this was in his life.

“During the game, while I was out there on the ice, it probably soaked in a little more for my family than it did for me, but after the game while we were sitting around and talking it sort of hit me that I was now an NHL player,” Ben said. “All the years of hard work and effort culminated in that one moment. It was sort of breathtaking.”

And if he thought that moment was special, he really hadn’t seen anything yet as, just two nights later, he lined up against the reigning Stanley Cup champions complete with all their legends and superstars.

“It was pretty crazy looking across the ice and seeing the likes of Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel looking back at you. It’s kind of surreal when you’re out there sharing the ice with those guys you’ve watched for so many years dominate the sport,” Thomson said.

It was a bit of a reality check for a player who, up to now, had spent the entirety of his three-year professional career in the minors as he went minus three on the night in a disappointing 7-4 defeat.

“I think I was on TSN that night, but it was for all the wrong reasons,” Thomson said. “Crosby put the puck between his legs while he was on the move and slotted it into the empty net, which obviously wasn’t a nice feeling. It was a reminder though of the skill set these guys possess.”

But it gets better still. After picking himself up following that sobering game against the Penguins, Ben prepared to write his name into the history books as one of the men who helped draw the curtain on Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. In what was an ultra-competitive match-up that saw Thomson register more than 12 minutes of ice time, the Red Wings, perhaps fittingly, ran out 4-1 victors in the final game at their fabled home.

“A lot of people have asked me what the best or most memorable moment has been, and while there’s been so many of them, I don’t think anything can top playing in the final game at the Joe Louis Arena,” Ben said. “That’s probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my life. I’ve never been in an arena so loud – the fans were crazy. There was an octopus tossed onto the ice, it was amazing being there and having the opportunity to witness all of that live and in person.”

And while his stint with the Devils is now officially over – he was reassigned to Albany on April 10 as that particular franchise embarks on its final playoff run before its relocation to Binghamton, New York – Thomson had just enough of a taste to know he wants – correction – needs a little more.

“Now I’ve had a feel for NHL hockey, of course I’d like some more. I’ve just got to try to be the player I am and not do too much. I received a lot of advice and kind words from the guys over the past week – mostly that I need to remember what brought me to the table and keep on doing that,” Thomson said. “The biggest thing I can do now is go out there, be consistent and compete at 110 percent each and every night. If it’s one thing this experience has given me, it’s the hunger to push myself and succeed some more.”

He added, “When you play in the NHL, you get the feeling you can do anything. My focus now is back with the Albany Devils. We’ve got a really important game tonight and I’ll be doing whatever I can to help the team across the line and get to where we want to be.”

Thomson lined up in the Devils’ match-up with the Hartford Wolf Pack on Wednesday night. Results from that game were not available as of press time. Ben will be back in action again on Friday and Saturday as the team prepares for a double-header with the Rochester Americans.

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