TAMPA — When Kenan Thompson hosted the NHL Awards in 2019, the part-time Tampa resident cracked several jokes at the Lightning’s expense after they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by Columbus following their record 62-win Presidents’ Trophy season.
The longest-running cast member on NBC’s Saturday Night Live is returning to host this year’s awards show Tuesday from Tampa’s Armature Works (7 p.m. on ESPN). Thompson, well known for playing Russ Tyler — creator of the iconic “knuckle puck” — in The Mighty Ducks 2 and 3, recently sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to talk about the city, hosting again and his love for hockey. (Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
You’re getting ready to host the NHL Awards. Not only are you doing it again, but you’re doing it from right here in Tampa, which you call home at least part of the time. How much are you looking forward to that?
Super-duper looking forward to it. Tampa has been a second home. ... I went from Atlanta to Los Angeles and New York or whatever, but as far as owning a house is concerned, Tampa is kind of the first place I’ve done that. So it’s definitely been home for several years now. We’re almost going on a decade soon, so we’re really excited to come back down there and do some big production-type stuff in the hometown. That will be fun.
You included a fair share of jokes about the whole “getting swept by Columbus” thing last time. Have you been able to rebuild your relationship with those guys in the last couple of years?
Yeah, I hope so. I mean, Alex Killorn and I are still tight in my mind, so I’m looking forward to maybe doing another “Dock Talk” once they win this next (Stanley Cup). So fingers crossed, man. We’re rooting for them. It was a tough tug of war when they were playing the Rangers (in the Eastern Conference final), just because I have a lot of love for the Garden, too, and I’ve been going there for years and years, and they’re just two good cities and it was a great series. But I’m really proud of the Lightning, man. They must have taken my jokes to heart.
Right. It’s the motivation from the jokes that turned them into back-to-back champs. And now maybe a three-peat.
I’ll take that credit.
Hosting the awards, what’s that like for you?
It’s so much fun, it’s a chance for me to actually get up close with a lot of different players that I would probably never get a chance to meet because they play in all these different cities. It’s just nice to celebrate the world of hockey, and everybody that kind of helps that community grow on so many different levels, from intramurals all the way up to the pros. And it’s just nice to see the players in a relaxed environment with their families. And it’s fun for me because I get to toss around some jokes and just have a good time.
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How would you compare being on SNL with hosting the Awards?
They’re similar, especially when we do pre-tapes. ... That experience is very similar because I’m waiting to see the response, basically. Anytime we do a pre-tape at SNL, we all watch it while the audience is watching it. It’s fingernail-biting time because you want (the audience) to laugh at it.
So watching the reactions in real time when you’re not performing, it’s very nerve-wracking a little bit. But this is hockey, so we just have a good time. … It’s a very humble kind of sport community. Everybody’s pretty family-oriented, boots-on-the-ground type stuff. So as long as that attitude is in the air, we just have a good time.
OK, I have a quick game for you because there are five awards being announced Tuesday. Even for fans who follow hockey closely, the names of the awards don’t necessarily tell exactly what they’re about. So, I’m going to leave it to you to rename them.
The Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player).
Let’s see. … The Slick Daddy Trophy.
Vezina Trophy (top goaltender).
Norris Trophy (top defenseman).
Yeah, we’ll call that one The Beast.
Victor Hedman’s up for it this year. Do you think he has a shot?
Oh, he’s a beast, absolutely. C’mon Vic, that’s what’s up. Good ol’ Tampa boy, I love it.
Calder Trophy (rookie of the year).
We’ll call that one Young Blood.
Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player as voted by the NHL Players’ Association).
I mean, I wanted to call it This Year’s GOAT. We’ll call it The Sisqo for the platinum hair. It’s like the platinum edition of a player.
You’ve joked about inclusion and representation in hockey in the past, but you’ve also taken action, including an op-ed about Willie O’Ree, the first Black player in the NHL, you wrote last year. Why specifically within the sport of hockey are these issues important to you?
It’s important across the gambit of life, basically. But since we are on the subject of hockey, yeah, it feels like there could be just more awareness, maybe even in other cultures, that hockey is a great sport. It’s a great sport to get involved with, it’s a great community, and (I’m) just trying to raise awareness to that option. It’s a very inclusive community.
As far as the people that I know that have grown up in it, they all seem to have grown up with a very family(-based) support system, the whole community gets behind them. The NHL is doing a lot for people that can’t necessarily afford the equipment and stuff like that, so it seems like there are a lot of initiatives happening in the direction of trying to get people into hockey that wouldn’t necessarily normally migrate that way. …
And I think jokes help open up that conversation. It’s just a humorous observation, if you will, but at the same time, it does take action, and I think the NHL is doing a solid job with that. And it’s on people like me to use my platform to spread that awareness as well. … Just because you might not necessarily grow up in a hockey town, at some point, if you’re within the vicinity of a rink, you might want to check it out. It’s a cool sport.
Are you sick of the “knuckle puck” references, or is it a badge of honor?
Yeah, it’s a huge badge of honor. I think almost everybody that plays hockey has watched The Mighty Ducks. I get so much love from it almost 30 years down the road. I’m still able to go to hockey games because of it and stuff like that. And it’s almost like a key to the hockey city, basically.
How did you get involved with those movies?
It wasn’t a very kismet kind of situation. I just wanted to be an actor. I auditioned for the sequel after having interviewed some kids from the first movie, because I was a movie critic for this local news station in Atlanta. … If it wasn’t for The Mighty Ducks, I wouldn’t know how to skate. I couldn’t even roller skate.
Thank God, they had a bit of a maniac hockey coach. He used to coach the USA kids’ hockey team, and he was no joke. For eight weeks (before) both movies, we went to boot camp with that guy, and he whipped us into shape to the point where I can still skate impressively for everybody that doesn’t know that I can skate. As soon as I go out there, they’re like, “Oh, snap.”
So, when you go out there, it’s time to show off to the kids?
Yeah, they always tell me I’m going too fast. I’m like, “C’mon, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.” ... “Keep up.” That’s what the ice is for, so you can just fly.
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