Tim Thompson, Hockey Night in Canada’s montage creator, journeys his way into the heart of a sport
For most Canadian hockey fans, it has become part of the sacred ritual.
Alongside Ron MacLean, the explosion of many colours that is the beloved Don Cherry, and the simple yet necessary instinctual recitation of Foster Hewitt’s “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland,” Hockey Night in Canada’s video montages have cemented their place in hockey history.
A feat that anyone who knows a hockey fan would not take lightly; the tradition, the rituals, the history – a gentlemen’s club that most can’t find the door to, let alone knock. And be let in.
Tim Thompson, the man who takes hockey’s most beautiful, most gut-wrenching, and downright ugliest, setting it to a flawless soundtrack sending shivers down your spine every time, has been let in, given a beer, and the legend’s chair.
A chair rightfully earned though, as Thompson has paid his fair share of dues.
As it does for most, the journey began with a dream to play in the National Hockey League. Thompson took his dream to major junior, manning the blue line for the then Niagara Falls Thunder of the Ontario Hockey League.
Left undrafted, Thompson was left in search of a university to attend to get a degree and continue his playing career. Thanks to a run in with an old teammate, Todd Wetzel, who currently played for the University of Guelph and raved about it, Thompson became a Gryphon.
“The more I read and heard about the school, the city and the team, the more I thought about how great it would be,” Thompson said of what he described as an easy decision. “And then I found out more about the city, the culture, how it had such a great music scene…”
A small foreshadow to what would later become a significant part of Thompson’s contribution to the world of hockey, off the ice.
You could argue Thompson began making his mark during his time as a member of the Guelph Gryphons, who won the championship in 1996-97 – the last Gryphons men’s hockey team to do so.
That championship team was also the last team to carry a trophy off the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens, adding another tally to the history books for Thompson.
“I think we all knew we had something special that year,” Thompson said of a team who had been through playoff runs before, falling just short. “We had that bit of magic elixir about us.”
Magical it was for a historic Gryphons team; historic as champions, and as a team who managed to fit on a zamboni to be driven around campus in celebration.
“That must have been a sight,” Thompson said, remembering fondly.
The stay-at-home defenseman also played a season in the late Western Professional Hockey League after graduating from Guelph – a season that pushed Thompson to hang up the skates, at least professionally.
“I wish I had kept a journal,” Thompson explained of the experience he described as both bizarre, and good. “Pretty much every day I said to myself, ‘there’s no way that just happened.’”
Thompson then started the transition a lot of hockey players struggle with: to life after the game.
“I knew there was a lot more to life,” Thompson explained, recognizing his family for the much-needed support. “It took awhile to find the next road though.”
The next road began with a couple of other passions: music and film. The first stop was with Sportsnet in the newsroom where Thompson worked with Craig Simpson, a hockey analyst there at the time.
“I didn’t know a thing about how television was made, but I knew a lot about hockey.” Thompson said, crediting his ability to speak the same language as Simpson – a former professional hockey player – in making the initial step into the business easier. “I just absorbed everything I could.”
From Sportsnet, Thompson went on to work at TSN alongside Pierre McGuire, and then to the NHL Network where he would make three documentaries, finally combining the big three: hockey, music, and film.
Thompson found out from a senior producer of Hockey Night in Canada at the time that Ron MacLean and Don Cherry had loved one of his documentaries, and was told to stay in touch.
Thompson listened; a few years passed, and the rest is history. Seven years of history, to be exact.
Even after seven years, Thompson still gets nervous before the montages air.
“Funny enough, it feels a lot like it did before a big hockey game,” Thompson explained. “That same feeling of restlessness.”
Even finding the right song, Thompson’s favourite part of the creation process, still gives the filmmaker goosebumps.
“Even after watching it a thousand times.”
Beyond the dark room where simple fragments become important pieces of the stories Thompson so often tells with his work, there are millions of people in front of their televisions ready to become apart of the process.
“It’s incredibly surreal,” Thompson explained. “I sit in a dark suite making these things, with songs that speak to me so you never know how people will react to them.”
“To connect with so many people, it’s a true honour.”
It’s no secret that Hockey Night in Canada on CBC came to an end this past June, as a country watched the annual playoff wrap-up video Thompson compiles that usually sends shivers down spines without the added emotional aspect of a significant chapter of hockey ending.
Looking ahead to next season, Thompson is left with as many questions as the rest of us.
Though Thompson, along with his work all season featuring a large portion of historic footage that may unfortunately be swept back into an abyss that CBC’s shelves will now become, helped a country say goodbye properly, and peacefully with the closing video.
“I grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada,” Thompson explained. “It’s legendary, and one of the few iconic programs on television.”
It’s truly remarkable how one montage softened the blow of those closing credits. Closing credits that featured legend after legend, Tim Thompson undoubtedly being one of them.