From hockey to med school, Thompson is all in
Claire Thompson often has to remind people that she’s not a doctor yet.
Thompson is a first-year medical student at New York University who also happens to be an Olympic gold medalist and world champion defender for Team Canada. She has fielded medical questions from people, including teammates and family members, but does not give medical advice.
"I usually tell them to see their doctor, that's my go-to line," said Thompson. "[I've seen] some interesting photographs of rashes and stuff. Everyone's like, 'Oh should I be worried about this' and I'm like, I don't know, see a dermatologist."
Learning to interact with patients is one of the many things that make up the medical school experience so far for Thompson. While she says the majority of her program has been classroom-based learning with lectures about diseases and different areas of the human body, that has been supplemented by interacting with volunteer patients and paid actors.
“You go in [and] interview patients just for the purpose of practising your interviewing skills,” said Thompson. “Then they tell you about their patient history, their medical history, their family history, and then it's really exciting when you've covered the unit and you actually then know what you think they've been diagnosed with, and how you would help that sort of patient [but] obviously the doctors are in charge of that.
“But I think it's a really gratifying part of our learning. It's a lot of work to learn all the stuff but then you go in and you know that you could have helped this person. I think that's the most exciting part of what I've been doing so far.”
An Olympic gold medallist and a full-time medical student at @nyugrossman, Claire Thompson is showing young girls that dreams can be achieved both on and off the ice. 🏒⚕️— Hockey Canada (@HockeyCanada) March 10, 2023
See how at ➡️ https://t.co/TbWmpxq92N#InspireTheNext | @OHFHockey | @OWHAhockey pic.twitter.com/CTj4e99Uzb
Thompson has also proven to be a quick learner on the ice. When the Toronto product was first recruited to play NCAA hockey by Princeton University, she was a forward at the time before becoming a defender.
Princeton head coach Cara Morey has seen the full transformation of a player who never made a Hockey Canada roster as a teenager to one setting the Olympic record for points by a defender with 13 and making the All-Star team at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“Her game has grown tremendously because she had to learn a whole new position,” said Morey. “Each year she got better and better and better and it was more like helping her play to her strengths instead of necessarily worrying too much about her deficiencies.
“It was finding ways to make Claire be the best at what she does that nobody else can do and that’s where her game really exploded. By her senior year, she was one of the best in the country.”
Thompson was solid in her first two years at Princeton but exploded in her junior season, with nine goals and 28 points in 33 games. In her senior year, she had 23 points in 31 games. She credits the Princeton coaching staff for instilling confidence in her by letting her figure things out without fear.
“They put trust in me to make decisions and see opportunities and take those opportunities without being afraid that if I failed, I wouldn’t see another shift that game and I think that gave me a lot of confidence,” said Thompson.
The result has been a player who is not afraid to jump into the rush and create offence at any opportunity. Skating this season in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association with Team Sonnet as well as practising with the NYU men’s hockey team, her style may appear a little unorthodox at times, but it’s all part of her plan.
“When you watch her, you think she’s a disaster, she kind of looks like a yard sale on the ice when she’s breaking the puck out, she’s one millimetre away from losing an edge and wiping out but it’s all calculated, she knows what she’s doing,” said Morey.
“She’s the best to me at breaking the puck out through the middle through forecheckers and she’s also the best at working the offensive blueline and finding those seams. She’ll slide the puck through pinholes, through people that are just awesome scoring opportunities and walk the blueline.”
Making her international debut at the 2021 worlds in Calgary, Thompson quickly elevated herself into playing top-four minutes for Canada alongside Erin Ambrose. She recorded four assists in seven games as Canada broke a nine-year gold medal drought and then followed that up with the record-breaking 13 points at the 2022 Olympics as Canada claimed gold.
“I think we balance each other well,” said Thompson on her partnership with Ambrose. “She kind of gives me free rein to skate wherever I want which makes me really happy and then I always know that she’s right there to help me out when I need her and then offensively, she’s brilliant.”
Team Canada head coach Troy Ryan notes that on a team with a number of high academic achievers, including Ivy League graduates from Cornell, Harvard and Dartmouth, Thompson has separated herself.
He says when the team is staying in a hotel, the coaching staff will get a boardroom and do up to five to six hours of video work. He says Thompson is often in there as well studying with her textbooks for the same amount of time.
“She keeps you on your toes too because I try to draw a lot of comparisons in my coaching to a life thing or a business or something that connects the dots for them,” explained Ryan. “In the past, you could probably just throw something out there and it might be 90 per cent factual, if it’s not 100 per cent factual, Claire probably knows, she’s probably come across that somewhere in her reading and she’ll call your bluff on it.”
That level of intelligence was also firmly on display during her days at Princeton. Morey and the rest of the coaching staff would draw up drills in practice knowing Thompson would try to break them and have adjustments ready with the inevitability she would solve them.
“She’s so brilliant but she’s also so respectful,” said Morey. “We had our battles over the years, we really did. She is very much on the rules of the system and that if you say something, that’s what it is. So you try to change things in the middle after she’s understood the process, you’re not going to win against her.
“But we have the most wonderful relationship and had it because you can have those conversations with her, and she will hold you accountable and you can hold her accountable and she’s very much fair is fair. It was awesome, and it was challenging but honestly I smile every time I think about it because it made me a better coach and I just loved the weird banter.”
Canadian teammate Emma Maltais, who is looking to complete her Masters this summer at Ohio State, understands the unique balancing act it requires to handle hockey and school. She remembers Thompson studying for the Medical College Admission Test while rooming together during Thompson’s first Hockey Canada development camp.
“I can’t even imagine what she’s going through during medical school, but you make it work,” said Maltais. “I think for her, she makes it work, she says that she’s got the cue cards on her phone when she’s going to practice and she’s doing something every second of the day but she’s so willing and so balanced in her brain that it doesn’t affect her mood, [she] keeps it so even-keeled.”
Thompson sat out last year’s world championship with Ryan and Hockey Canada vice-president of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury agreeing it was for the best she focus on acclimating to her first semester at NYU.
Now having had the opportunity to shadow different specialties at med school, Thompson has used this past year to think about what patient population she’s most interested in serving and it’s one that’s very close to home.
“I think from stepping back from the hockey community briefly to start medical school and then coming back into it, I think that it’s really solidified in me that I think I want to deal largely in the aspect of supporting athletes,” said Thompson. “And not even just high-performance athletes but even just your weekend warriors or people who like to live an athletic lifestyle.
“That’s so important to so many people and being able to help people return to the athletic activities they love would be a really huge honour and something that I hope to accomplish one day.”