A thoughtful leader and high-reward defender, Princeton captain Claire Thompson continues to flourish

Princeton captain and defender Claire Thompson drops her knee while taking a shot in a game against the University of Toronto during the 2019-20 season.

Princeton captain  Claire Thompson is one of the NCAA’s best defenders. She’s particularly effective at generating offense and getting shots through from the blue line, ranking sixth among all defenders nationwide. (Shelley Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

Whenever Princeton head coach Cara Morey and her staff are drawing up a new drill for practice, they take the same approach. They devise the best strategy for what they want to achieve. They figure out what they want their players to do for those 10 or 20 minutes on the ice. They get it exactly the way they want it to serve their purpose.

And then they get to the all-important last step.

“As soon as we design it, we’ve finished drawing up a drill or game that we’re going to play, and we say, ‘How is Claire going to ruin this drill?'” Morey said.

Of course, if you ask Princeton senior captain Claire Thompson herself, she doesn’t really see it as “ruining”.

“I obviously like winning, and so I don’t want to lose anything in practice ever,” Thompson said. “So I immediately, when she draws up the drill, I start strategizing in my head how I’m going to win.”

Thompson’s competitiveness—and, of course, ingenuity—extends far beyond the practice ice, and it doesn’t come without results. She’s one of the best blue-liners in the country, building off of a breakout junior season to help the Tigers earn national acclaim once again in all aspects of the game.

Morey describes her as a creative defender who plays an aggressive style. That’s translated directly into production for Thompson and the Tigers. Last season, she was tied for fifth nationally among all defenders with 28 points, off of nine goals and 19 assists. This year, she’s got 15 points in 22 games. She’s fifth on the team in scoring and leads in shots blocked (39) as well.

“She’s one of those high-risk, high-reward players, but for us, her rewards way outnumber her risks,” Morey said.

That style of play works in part because there’s a common trust between Thompson and the coaching staff. As good as she is offensively, she’s adept on the defensive side as well, particularly at turning possession back for Princeton even in sticky spots.

“That’s kind of the agreement we’ve always had as player and coach is like, ‘I’m going to give you a lot of leeway and give you the green light to go. But if you turn the puck over, you have to get it back,'” Morey said. “She’s a fighter that way. She’s scrappy. She’s super competitive, and that’s why she’s successful.”

Early on in her career, Thompson was actually a center. She began to make the switch over to D in grade 11, when she was playing for the Toronto Jr. Aeros in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).

“I would say it was more my dad’s idea than anything,” she said. “When I was playing center, I was more of a defensive-minded center, and so I liked playing in the D zone. And we just thought that my skillset might translate to be a more productive defenseman.”

Her first year with the Tigers, Thompson said she took quite a bit of inspiration playing alongside First Team All-American defender Kelsey Koelzer. During her sophomore season, Princeton spent much of the year playing with four defenders, leaving Thompson to shoulder some taxing minutes along with the rest of her teammates.

But with a fully healthy blue line for almost the entire season last year, she really started to flourish. Thompson was named a First Team All-ECAC and First Team All-Ivy League honoree, and helped Princeton to a program record unbeaten streak, an Ivy League championship, and an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Thompson has also gotten a chance to prove herself with Hockey Canada’s national team program. But before the 2019-20 season, she wasn’t involved with the program at all after missing the cut for the Under-18 Team. After being left off of national team camp rosters for her first two college seasons, she had to rethink her relationship with hockey and what drove her to play, in a way  that allowed her to thrive.

“I found a different love for hockey, almost; I came to the rink every single day and was just happy to be with my teammates,” Thompson said. “I found a lot of joy in practicing hard and when the team would win, I would be overjoyed.”

Her play as a junior earned her a spot at Canada’s National Women’s Development Team Camp this past August. She joined the Development Team for their annual three-game series against the U.S. Under-22 Team, and played so well there that she was invited to the BFL National Women’s Fall Festival in September.

After that, Thompson earned her first call-up to the senior national team for their training camp and exhibition series against Team USA in Pittsburgh, Pa., in November. Canada won both games.

“When I got selected for the Pittsburgh series, I was just so excited to represent my country against the U.S. on the highest stage. I was just blown away,” she said. “I was very happy to be a part of that team.”

Princeton captain and defender Claire Thompson handles the puck in a game against Syracuse during the 2019-20 season.

Thompson handles the puck in a game against Syracuse. (Shelley Szwast/Princeton Athletics)

One of Thompson’s biggest assets is her shot, which Morey describes as deadly. She’s one of the NCAA’s most efficient players in terms of generating offense for her team. She averages 3.55 shots on goal per game, which ranks sixth in the country among defenders.

Her skillset is particularly useful on the power play. Princeton’s power-play unit has been one of the best in the nation for the past two seasons; this year, the Tigers are scoring at a 23.2% clip, good for fifth overall.

“She can see the game a couple steps ahead of most people, so she can anticipate where the puck is going to need to go,” Morey said. “She knows when to distribute it, when to take her shots, when to rush. She’s brave, and you need that when you’re back there.”

This season, she’s one of two seniors, along with Sylvie Wallin, on a comparatively young Princeton blue line. They’re joined by two sophomores, Mariah Keopple and Chloe Harvey, and three freshmen: Kate Monihan, Solveig Neunzert, and Stef Wallace. Thompson can—and does—eat up minutes, but she and Wallin have taken it upon themselves to help the rookies along as well. They’ve worked through some early-season bumps in the road and come out stronger as a unit.

Monihan has frequently been paired with Thompson and, as Morey notes, is playing great hockey herself of late.

“The freshmen came in just happy and ready to learn and I think that speaks volumes in where we are today as a D corps,” Thompson said. “I’ve played with all three of them and they were very receptive and great at learning our systems. I worked a lot with Kate Monihan, and she was just incredible and very adaptive.”

As a captain, Thompson is a thoughtful leader, who focuses on leading by example for her teammates. Even away from the rink, she takes great care to help others. She’s a peer academic adviser for Whitman College, one of Princeton’s residential colleges. She helps first- and second-year students within the college by hosting study breaks, suggesting courses, connecting them with available resources, and answering their questions about academics at Princeton.

Her coach praises Thompson’s ability to see things from all angles, and think about other people’s perspectives. As a player, she’s just as deliberative, always asking why.

“I love coaching her because she makes me a better coach,” Morey said. “You have to be confident in what you’re coaching because she challenges you, not in a disrespectful way, but she’s really cerebral in her game, so she’s going to want to discuss it. Not, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But like, ‘Tell me what you want me to get out of this. Tell me what I’m looking for.'”

That also means challenging her coaches to draw up the absolutely perfect drill, with no loopholes.

“We call it ruining and in her mind, she sees it as a challenge. ‘How am I going to beat this?'” Morey said. “Some of that is just defensive-mindedness, but literally, we’d say ‘O.K., we’re done drawing it, now how is Claire going to beat this?’ And then we have to come up with the next level.”

“You just have to think about what’s the best way to not get scored on,” Thompson said. “And if it’s a loophole in the drill, or you start skating forwards instead of backwards because it’s easier, then I mean, you just gotta go for it.”

Thompson is still trying to figure out her post-graduation plans for next season. Right now, she’s wrapping up a thesis on theoretical ecology within Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Like nearly every women’s hockey player before her, she’ll likely have to perform a delicate balancing act to continue playing hockey and stay on the national team’s radar, while also pursuing a future career in medicine. It’s a challenge she’s up for, though.

“I definitely hope next year to continue doing some sort of medical research or something, but I’m going to try to find a way to combine both athletics and academics post college,” she said. “My goal is to go to medical school once I’m finished with hockey. And I hope to be some sort of doctor.

“I wouldn’t say I for sure know what kind of doctor I want to be, but I definitely want to be one type and just spend my career helping people and making people healthy.”

 

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