JANESVILLE, WI — The Janesville Jets, proud members of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), are pleased to announce that forward Justin Thompson has committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for the Long Island University Sharks.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Thompson. “My path has not been the easiest one, and not usually looked at as popular or ideal for Minnesota high school hockey players. Going to play midgets after high school, grinding for a couple of years…it feels good to prove the people right who have trusted in me.”
The Sharks are the 61st and newest addition to men’s Division I NCAA hockey, announcing their program’s addition in April. Brett Riley was selected as the first head coach in program history. Yet to be determined are the Sharks’ conference and home ice location.
Thompson said that conversations with Riley and the opportunity to help a program begin its history drew him to the Sharks.
“Coach Riley and I have the same ideals,” said Thompson. “I’ve always been an underdog, and this new program is going to face some of that, too. I thought it’d be cool to help build something and start something new.”
Thompson (5-11/175) is from Oakdale, Minnesota, and became the first Minnesotan to commit to LIU. The 2000-born forward captained his senior year at Tartan Senior High, then developed with the Iowa Wild U18 program before making the jump to the NAHL. He will return to Janesville this fall, and join the Sharks for their second season of Division I play in 2021-22.
“This is a great thing for Thompson and a great thing for LIU,” said associate head coach Lennie Childs. “He’s the perfect player as a program starter. He’s a true culture guy, an energy guy, who has tons of skill but just shows up every day, puts in the work, and does the little things right that a program needs to build from the ground up. I know their coach Brett Riley very well, and this is exactly the kind of kid he wants and needs.”
The Jets acquired Thompson in an early January trade with the Corpus Christi IceRays. He scored his first point and first goal as a Jet in a road series against the Magicians, less than a 30-minute drive from where he grew up. Thompson played in each of the Jets’ 19 games down the stretch, and would more than double his production from his days as an IceRay.
“Getting Thompson when we did was a breath of fresh air,” Childs said. “Both his personality and his playing style added instant jolts to the locker room on a daily basis. You need guys like that in this league, and even more so at the next level. He’s got pep in his step, and added some skill to the mix, too. As coaches, we knew we could trust him in every situation. Power play, penalty kill, start of a game, end of a game…he’s a pure ‘plug-and-play’ guy who can produce no matter what.”
At the time of Thompson’s acquisition, the Jets were 13-19-1-0, and were just starting to show signs of actualizing as the young, skilled roster that hockey operations had envisioned. In a heavy push for the playoffs, Janesville sewed together a record of 11-7-0-1 with the help of Thompson before the season was canceled due to the pandemic.
“It was a really special group,” said Thompson. “Coming in, I didn’t know how they’d react to me joining in January, not having gone through training camp or some of the rougher patches in the first half of the season with them. But the guys were super welcoming. Practices were battles every single day. It was interesting to join a team in the middle of a wake-up call, and I was glad to be a part of it. We were doing great towards the end to turn it around and figure stuff out. With every team and every season, you have your ups and downs, but it’s what you do when you’re at those lowest points that shows who you are and what really counts.”
A decade ago, Tartan Senior High sent another Oakdale forward on to the NAHL. After 107 games in the Jets’ uniform, Jake Horton advanced to USHL Waterloo, played four seasons at Harvard, and just finished his second season of professional hockey with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Today, Horton and Thompson are close friends and train together.
“Training with him is really really special to me,” said Thompson. “He’s one of the few Tartan players who committed Division I. I had always looked up to him. When I was 10 or 11 years old, he had just left Tartan to go play juniors. I wasn’t friends with him at the time, of course, being just a kid, but I got his autograph and put it up in my room. I told myself I would chase that. Now, getting to that level, being asked to train with him, and getting to be super good friends with him…it’s really cool. He’s been a big person who has helped me toward my success. It’s funny because he had always talked about Janesville being a great spot to play, then I was traded here. He always spoke so highly of the organization and the community, and it was obvious to see why.”
Thompson’s announcement makes him the 13th player on the 2019-20 year-end Jets roster with an NCAA commitment. 11 of the 13 are Division I.
“Committing as a Jet means a lot,” he said. “Things didn’t work out fantastic in Corpus Christi, and you know, sometimes things just don’t add up. But the Jets took a chance on me and I think it’s paid off for the both of us. I try to come to the rink every day and be a good teammate, push my teammates and myself, and be a good person in the community. Everyone in Janesville has been super welcoming, from the Jets organization to the people I meet going out to elementary schools and other appearances. It’s a great place to play.”
The Jets will hold their first of two pre-draft camps next weekend in Crystal Lake, Illinois, as Childs, head coach Parker Burgess, and general manager Joe Dibble continue to build their board for the July 21 NAHL Entry Draft. From there, the early August Main Camp will whittle down a training camp roster, which Thompson believes will have serious potential.
“Coming back, we have a very strong group,” said the future Shark. “We definitely have a championship on the mind. All of us have the same idea that we’re going to be a really good group and that we’re going to win a lot of hockey games.”