- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now, he's hoping to help end the Boston Bruins' season.
A gritty and determined player, Thompson honed his skills in the AHL with the Providence Bruins, beginning with the playoffs of the 2004-05 season before his tenure in the organization ended when he was placed on waivers in October 2008.
During that time he played a total of four games for the parent club, making his NHL debut during the 2006-07 season.
The 26-year-old centerman is now an important member of the Lightning, the team the Bruins will face in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Saturday night at TD Garden.
"It's kind of funny that it's come full circle," Thompson said via phone from Tampa. "They're the team that drafted me, the team that I was with for 3 ½ years, and now I'm playing against them in the Eastern Conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's pretty surreal. It's a great opportunity and I'm excited about it."
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has made some tough decisions during his time in Boston, including placing Thompson on waivers, while keeping players such as Petteri Nokelainen and Stephane Yelle on the Bruins' roster.
But Thompson is not bitter toward the Bruins for their decision. He knows it's a business.
"I don't think they gave up on me. It's part of the business. I was the last cut and put on waivers and the [New York] Islanders picked me up," he said. "At the same time, whenever you play an old team that you played for, obviously you want to do well. It's pretty cool that it's come full circle and I get a chance to play the team that drafted me, a great organization like the Boston Bruins. I'm really excited and hopefully I play well against them."
Bruins coach Claude Julien was part of the decision-making process when the team cut Thompson. Still, Julien has nothing but good things to say about his former player.
"He's developed into the player that we thought he would be," Julien said. "He's always been a hard-working, dedicated individual. He was a great person as well. And there wasn't much to not like about Nate. I'm happy he's found a place to play and he seems to be a really good fit for them.
"Although you compete against each other, there's certain times where you've got to look at the individual and say, 'I'm glad he got rewarded for all his hard work' and that's certainly what I think about Nate. I liked him as both an individual and a player."
After a tremendous season in Providence in 2007-08, Thompson clearly was ready for the NHL. But because Nokelainen and Yelle were on the Bruins' roster, it became a numbers game and Thompson was cut at the end of training camp prior to the 2008-09 season.
"Organizations make decisions based on what they can or can't do," Julien said. "And we didn't have a choice but to put him on waivers at that stage. He got picked up because he was a good player. And if we wanted to be a little selfish we were hoping that he wouldn't, and he probably would have gotten an opportunity as well as we moved forward here."
It didn't take long for Thompson to find work because his former coach in Providence, Scott Gordon, had been named head coach for the New York Islanders, who quickly claimed Thompson.
He played a season and a half for the Islanders before the Lightning claimed him off waivers on Jan. 21, 2010. He's been a perfect fit in Tampa and is one of the reasons the Bolts are in the conference finals.
When told of Julien's kind words, Thompson was appreciative.
"It means a lot. It was first-class when I left there," Thompson said. "Coach Julien, Peter Chiarelli, Cam Neely, Don Sweeney, all those guys were always in my corner. Those guys were always pulling for me, so for him to say something like that, it's flattering."
When Thompson left the organization, Julien wished him well.
"I enjoyed my time there," he said. "It was a great experience and a great opportunity for me."
Boston's eighth pick (183rd overall) in the 2003 draft, Thompson became an integral part of the team in Providence and was named captain in 2007-08.
"Being coached by Scott Gordon and Rob Murray, they really helped me out in my career," Thompson said of the coaching staff in Providence. "Having that year when we were the best in the league in Providence, and I had a chance to be captain of that team, it was a great experience for me and I really learned a lot from my time with Boston and Providence."
Thompson credits his time with the Bruins as the steppingstone to his NHL career, but respect goes out the window when a trip to the Stanley Cup is on the line.
"When we're out on the rink, there are no friends," he said with a laugh.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.