The brother of New York Rangers and Chicago Black Hawks forward Paul, Cecil "Tiny" Thompson spent most of his career with the Boston Bruins. His spectacular play was exceeded only by his endurance. During his 12-year NHL career, Thompson led all goalies in games played nine times, while his four Vezina Trophy wins stood as the NHL standard until 1949, when Montreal's Bill Durnan won his fifth.
After gaining experience with the Calgary Monarchs, Pacific Grain Seniors and Bellevue Bulldogs of the Alberta Senior Hockey League, Thompson left the nest to further his development. He spent a year with the Duluth Hornets of the United States Amateur Hockey Association before moving on to the Minneapolis Millers. It was in Duluth that Thompson purchased the leg pads he used throughout his pro career. In 1927-28, in the renamed American Hockey Association, he recorded a league-leading 28 wins in 40 matches for the Minnesota squad. The next year, joined by Minneapolis teammate Ralph "Cooney" Weiland, he embarked on a stellar NHL career with the Bruins.
Few players have made a bigger impact in their rookie season. After Boston coach Cy Denneny opted to start him in the season opener ahead of incumbent Hal Winkler, Thompson's glorious career was launched. He posted a stingy 1.15 goals against mark and led Boston to 26 wins while appearing in all 44 games. In the playoffs, he helped the Bruins win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. In the finals against the Rangers, he faced his brother Paul in the only sibling confrontation in the playoffs until the Esposito brothers some 40 years later.
During his sophomore season, Thompson was forced to adjust to a more wide-open style of play as the NHL revised its forward-passing rules. His goals-against average grew to 2.19, but it stood as the league's best - the first of four times Tiny would lead this category.
The 1929-30 version of the Beantowners dominated the regular-season standings, and Thompson's 38-5-1 record was one of the most impressive in league history, but Boston was stunned by the Montreal Canadiens in the finals. With Thompson guarding the cage, Boston finished atop the NHL's American Division six times, but he'd never again led them to a Cup victory.
In 1930-31, the nervous netminder's anxiety got the better of him for a short stretch of the season and Percy Jackson had to be pressed into action. Fortunately Thompson's health improved and in 1932-33 he led the NHL with a career-high 11 shutouts.
On April 3, 1933, Thompson made history as the losing goaltender in the longest playoff game to that date, a match that was dubbed "the Ken Doraty Derby." In the fifth and deciding game of the Bruins' semifinal series with Toronto, both teams were held scoreless throughout regulation time as Tiny and his opposite number, Lorne Chabot, played superbly. The deadlock held through 104 minutes and 46 seconds of overtime before the Leafs' Doraty beat an exhausted Thompson.
During the 1935-36 season, Thompson entered the record book when he fed a pass to defenseman Babe Siebert, who went on to score. Thompson became the first goalie ever to earn an assist in the NHL. In 1938 he and brother Paul, then in Chicago, were both named to the First All-Star Team - only the second such brother act after Lionel and Charlie Conacher.
Thompson sat out two games at the start of the 1938-39 season because his eyes were bothering him. A young American by the name of Frank Brimsek stepped in and played so well that Bruins chief Art Ross decided he represented the club's goalkeeping future. On November 16, 1938, a Bruins era ended when Thompson was traded to Detroit for fellow netminder Norman Smith and $15,000. Thompson played 39 games that year for the Red Wings and a full season the next. After trying in vain to help Detroit upset the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1940 semifinals, Thompson left the NHL. He later played one game with the Buffalo Bisons of the American league in 1940-41 and a handful of contests for the Calgary RCAF Mustangs during World War II. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1959.