Hockey Preview: The Consummate Teammate
Published: Thursday, October 7, 2010
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Tommy Cross wrote a letter to Jerry York when he was 12 years old. Cross had watched a NESN special called "A Season Inside BC Hockey" about the 2001 Boston College national champion team. He wanted to be a part of the program. He asked the head coach if he could be an Eagle.
"I watched the show," Cross said, "every minute of it. I fell in love with the program. That's when I knew I wanted to come here. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to do so. Once they called, it was really an easy choice."
Fast-forward nine years. Cross, a junior defenseman, is the assistant captain of the defending national champion Eagles. BC is coming off its third title in a decade and has a massive bulls-eye on its back heading into Saturday's season-opener at Northeastern. Last time the Eagles won a championship, in 2008, they struggled through a disappointing 18-14-5 season. Cross was a freshman on that team. It's his job to make sure that doesn't happen again.
"We know what it's like to win like we did last year, and we know what it's like to have an unacceptable year like we did our freshman year," he said. "We're used to playing with a target on our back. We know people are gunning for us, and that's fine. We wouldn't want it any other way.
"As a result, we're going to target other people. Instead of them putting a target on our back, we're going to look at them and say, ‘Hey, we're going after you.' It doesn't matter who it is. We know that every team in our league is tough. Going on the road is tough. Winning at home is tough. We have to show up every night and compete hard."
Showing up every night has been tough enough for Cross, who has undergone three operations on his right knee since the summer before his senior year of high school. The three-inch scar that runs down the right side of the knee is a remnant of an errant slide into third base in an American Legion baseball game. The other two operations, which left nearly-invisible needle-wide dots on his kneecap, were for hockey-related injuries while at BC.
After aggravating his initial injury from high school, Cross missed the final 12 games of his freshman year. Midway through his sophomore year, he hurt his knee again in a collision with a Maine player. The injury, which was unrelated to the chronic problems he's had since the high school baseball game, was supposed to keep Cross out six weeks. He came back in three.
Finally, nine months later, Cross is 100 percent healthy. His body feels "good" and "strong," he said.
"Physically, he's been unable to be a really dominant player for us," York said. "But all his other attributes have been just what you expect from a leader. He's a terrific role model for other players, particularly in the rehabbing of his knee.
"His leadership has been evident since he came to BC. His play has just not been reflective of how good he can be. This year is going to be a really good year for him."
Just how good is he? Good enough for the Boston Bruins to move up three spots in the 2007 NHL draft to select him with the No. 35 pick, despite concerns over his knee.
Cross certainly has the physique to play at the next level. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he is built like a linebacker. On the fastest team in the country, he provides much-needed muscle.
Cross has spent the past four summers training with the Bruins in their developmental camp, playing with current NHL stars David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, Phil Kessel, and Milan Lucic. Although he was limited by injuries in the first three of those summers, he still got to meet with the coaches and experience a professional working environment.
This past summer, he was healthy and participated fully. He was one of the oldest players at the camp, which helped him refine his leadership style. Instead of actively advising his teammates, he chose to be more of a resource, answering their questions and making them feel comfortable on the team. The camp prepared him for his increased role at BC, where he will be trusted to mentor a young defense.
"I'm a strong believer that it's easy to lead when things are going well," Cross said. "When you're winning, it's easy to rah-rah, do all that stuff. At the same time, true leaders show their true colors when things aren't going as well. Over the course of the season, it's so hard to have everything go your way. There's going to be some tough stretches. There's going to be some adversity, some injuries. That's when the leaders emerge."
Talking to Cross, it's hard not to come away impressed. There's a reason others always turn to him to lead. He's a man's man. His handshake is firm, and he looks you in the eyes when he speaks. Leaning back in his chair, he projects an air of confidence. That's why he's captained virtually every team he's been on, from youth national teams to BC. He even served as class president as a senior at Westminster, the boarding school he attended in his hometown of Simsbury, Conn.
"In our situation here, I think the team sees me as a guy who just cares about his teammates so much and cares about the program," Cross said. "I've completely bought into what Coach York is all about and what he preaches here. It doesn't take a letter on my jersey for me to be a leader.
"My teammates know I'd do anything for them. They know at the end of the day that I'm not the only one who feels that way. That's what makes us such a good group."
"They all look up to him," York said. "They recognize the trials he's had to overcome just to get to where he is now."
Cross gets his instincts on the ice from his father, who played at Dartmouth, and his uncles, who played at Holy Cross and Providence. When his father, Tom, built a rink in the backyard, Cross began skating as a 3-year-old and fell for the sport his family loves.