(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, Brandon Sun) — It’s safe to say that Baron Thompson has been a big hit with Brandon Wheat King fans.
The six-foot-five, 255-pound rookie from Lakeville, Minnesota., has made giant strides from the start of the season as a short bench has pressed him into action most nights. And while his two goals, four assists and 37 penalty minutes in 36 games won’t overwhelm, the 17-year-old forward has been one of the team’s most improved players.
“I absolutely feel like I am (making progress),” Thompson said. “A lot of us young guys took on added responsibility when we had a couple guys out of the lineup and being on the power play was a lot different, it was a bigger role on the team.
“I was still doing my regular thing, being physical and getting pucks deep but now they’re telling me ‘Hey Bubs, when you get this opportunity you have to put it behind the net because we don’t have our guys.’ I was just doing everything I could to help the team get two points.”
Brandon picked up Thompson, his 19-year-old brother Tyler, defenceman Jordan Wharrie, a third-round pick in 2018 and a 10th-round bantam pick in 2017 on Sept. 1 for two unsigned prospects, Jeremy Klessens and Brendan Benoit, a third-round pick in the 2017 Western Hockey League draft, a seventh-round pick in 2018 and a conditional draft pick in 2019.
Baron, who is the only one of the three players still with the team, expects to be in the lineup Friday when the Wheat Kings host the front running Regina Pats.
It’s not an easy week for the team, with back to back road games in Saskatchewan this week, followed by two home games this weekend for four games in five nights.
“You have to love it,” Thompson said. “You have to love the grind. This is what I love to do so that’s why I’m here.”
Thompson first started skating at age two. He remembers that he didn’t like it until Tyler, who is two years older, started playing hockey at age six.
“I just absolutely fell in love with it and haven’t taken my skates off since I was five or six years old,” Thompson said.
He said he began to realize around age 10 that he was good at the game.
After playing his bantam-aged hockey with the Achiever Academy prep school — and scoring 30 goals and adding 15 assists in 22 games as a 13-year-old — he spent part of his 14-year-old year and all of his 15-year-old season in the North American Prospects Hockey League.
The Royals had selected him in the third round of the 2014 WHL bantam draft, but in late 2014, at age 15, he committed to play college hockey at the University of Maine.
He talked about his choices with his agents, and ultimately decided that major junior would be a better fit.
“I love it here,” Thompson said. “I love the atmosphere we have. I just can’t get enough of it. I just how things ended up.”
The path hasn’t been without its detours. The Thompson brothers were sent home on Sept. 26 for an off-ice issue, but Baron returned to the ice with the team on Oct. 18 after spending the intervening time working for his aunt at Lake Minnetonka.
When he got back to Brandon, he was 267 pounds.
Assistant coach Don MacGillivray worked with him one-on-one on his skating and conditioning and Thompson quickly shed 25 pounds.
“I’m just so glad to be back here with the team,” he said. “It was kind of awkward for a couple of days but then I kind of wrapped my head around the fact that I was back. Everyone treated me very well.”
Wheat Kings head coach David Anning said Thompson has been a nice surprise as the year has gone on.
“He’s gotten better here as the season’s gone along,” Anning said. “I think he looks more comfortable and understands what the expectations are. We want him to play a heavy game, we want him to use his size and strength. He has a good skill set where, when he uses his body to separate the man from the puck, he creates those turnovers and has enough skill to generate scoring chances and goals for us.
“We like the improvement we’ve seen.”
Thompson, who loves to have a good laugh — “Hopefully I’ll be done growing here pretty soon or I’ll have to join the circus,” he chuckles — calls himself the most pranked guy on the team.
An insight into his character came on Jan. 7 after the game when the Wheat Kings hosted a post-game skate with fans. After James Shearer and Schael Higson left the ice, Thompson was the last player out there, playing tag with a large group of happy youngsters.
He often throws pucks into the crowd during warmup and enjoys his time in autograph alley.
“I used to be those kids watching guys. Where I’m from we don’t have junior teams but we have a couple of Tier 2 teams,” Thompson said. “I’d go to high school games and ask for autographs because I just thought it was so cool. When they see us they look up to us like we’re NHL stars. I just think it’s really cool that the fanbase here is just ridiculous.
“We had fans when we were in Victoria, when we in Kamloops, all the way out west. I can’t believe how awesome the fans are here.”