A Wolf with the heart of Dixie

by Elizabeth Casey || AHL On The Beat Archive

By the time the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals rolled around, nearly every member of the hockey community was already enjoying the offseason.

Chicago Wolves center Jared Ross was not, but he was certainly enjoying the alternative.

The 28-year-old forward had a front row seat for hockey’s final showdown after having been recalled by the Philadelphia Flyers for the playoff run. He skated in three games during the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Bruins and was on the roster for the runners up the day they were defeated by the Chicago Blackhawks for hockey’s highest prize.

“A lot of people (in Chicago) have rubbed it in,” Ross laughed. “But for me it was just a great experience, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t play in the Finals, but I was really close to the situation and was able to watch what the guys went through and see how they competed throughout the whole playoffs and it taught me a lot about what it really takes to make it all the way.”

That attitude and willingness to learn is part of what carried the 5-foot-9-inch, 165 pound, forward all the way from Huntsville, Ala., to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Hockey was hardly a pervasive sport in Huntsville when Ross was growing up, but it was a part of life within his household. Father Doug Ross was a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic hockey team and coached the men’s team at the University of Alabama-Huntsville for 25 years.

“I started skating when I was three years old and I grew up playing (in Huntsville),” Ross said. “When I was growing up, hockey was pretty rare. There was hockey, but there wasn’t that much of it. Now that the years have gone by, it’s actually gotten pretty big down there. They have high school hockey, middle school hockey and a pretty good travel program as well as a semi-pro team. It’s definitely gotten bigger in the past 10-15 years.”

But with few options for advanced competition at the time, Ross’ desire to succeed in hockey led him to head north.

“When I was 17, I moved up to Michigan and played a couple years of high school hockey for Detroit Catholic Central and then I ended up going back down to University of Alabama-Huntsville for college hockey.”

Upon conclusion of his senior season in 2005, Ross had an opportunity to get a taste of the pro lifestyle with the United Hockey League’s Motor City Mechanics. It wasn’t just your average introduction to the pros. With the National Hockey League in the midst of the lockout, the 22-year-old college senior found himself in a UHL locker room with Chris Chelios, Bryan Smolinski, Derian Hatcher and Sean Avery.

“That definitely made it a pretty fun experience,” Ross said. “I was able to watch those guys and learn a lot. Even though it was for a short period of time it was definitely something that was well worth leaving school to go do.”

Soon after that, the undrafted forward caught the eye of the Chicago Wolves and was signed to an American Hockey League contract. Once in Chicago, Ross continued watching, learning and working hard, and so began his AHL career.

“It was a really good learning experience to be a young guy and get to be on a team with such a good reputation as the Wolves,” he remembered. “I was a younger guy, and to get to have John Anderson as a coach – he taught me a lot – and to be able to watch some of the veterans that they had here and play with some of those guys was great.”

That logjam of talent led the Wolves to trade Ross to the Philadelphia Phantoms at the Clear Day deadline in 2007.

“At first, I was a little bit nervous,” he said. “When you get traded, you don’t know what to expect, but fortunately I was traded to an organization that had one of my good buddies on the team. Scott Munroe was the goaltender (for the Phantoms) and I’d played with him in college, so that definitely made the transition a little easier.”

The change proved to be a major catalyst in Ross’ career.

“When I got adjusted there, it was all a matter of getting put in the right situation and taking advantage of it,” he said. “I was put on one of the top lines and I was put with players that had been around a while and I played well with, and I think that’s especially important in order to have success.”

Success came quickly for Ross in the Philadelphia organization. In 2007-08, his first full season with the Phantoms, he nearly doubled his point total from his first full season in Chicago. One year later, he made the Flyers opening day roster out of training camp.

“Getting to actually play in the NHL is something I’ve been dreaming of since I was a kid, and to get to be on that opening day roster against the New York Rangers was great. I started off (2008) with the Flyers and got to play 10 games that year. I got to play in the playoffs, which was awesome, and I got my first NHL goal.”

He set AHL career highs in every category during the 2008-09 campaign and returned to the Philadelphia organization last season. When the Stanley Cup made its way to Chicago and the season finally wrapped up, the Atlanta Thrashers organization was waiting.

“We know the kind of personality he has – he’s a really good person – so with that and his hockey ability put together, we talked to Atlanta about him and they liked him as well,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “He is a good potential call up guy for them with his playoff experience in Philadelphia.”

Young has been impressed with the progress Ross has made between his rookie season and today.

“He’s a smarter player,” Young said. “We recognized his speed and his playmaking ability when he first came here. He was a free agent and an unknown and he kept impressing us every day. Now, he has that experience and I think he understands the pro game so much better than before.”

In his sixth professional season, Ross agrees that he has come a long way from the college senior observing Chelios and Hatcher.

“I’ve been able to adjust to pro hockey and I’m definitely a lot more comfortable on the ice,” he agreed. “I’ve matured a lot. A lot of it has to do with decision making and knowing the right times to do things. I’ve found my role with the team and that has helped me grow a little bit and be able to play the way I can.”

A wedding and the arrival of one-year-old son Cameron made for some changes off the ice as well.

“I have a family now and that’s been a great experience; nothing but fun and joy. It’s definitely nice to come home to a family after some of the tough games.”

He and his wife, Evelyn, make their home in Huntsville during the offseason, where Ross is now a sort of ambassador for the sport, after becoming the first player born and trained in Alabama to suit up in the NHL.

“It’s surreal to be able to say that – I don’t think I ever realized it till it actually happened. But it’s definitely cool,” he said. “Back home, there are always kids who want to talk to me about playing in the NHL and I love to be able to be the guy to share that experience with them because they don’t get to meet too many NHL players in Huntsville, Alabama.”

At the relatively young age of 28, Ross has developed from an undrafted college player eager to learn, to a Stanley Cup playoff hardened veteran, centering a line of two of the Atlanta Thrashers’ young prospects: Riley Holzapfel and Spencer Machacek.

“They’ve been our most consistent line,” Young noted. “They go in game-in and game-out and give us something. We’ve got a lot of minuses on the team right now and they are all on the plus side. That speaks volumes of what their line is about, and they’ve contributed offensively too.”

“I think our line is having a lot of fun playing with each other and that is definitely something you hope for,” Ross added.

Of all the learning experiences Ross has undergone during his hockey transformation, there is one thing he has yet to do: win a championship. This season, he hopes he won’t just be watching a Chicago team lifting a cup from the sidelines.

“Our goal as a team is to win a championship, and I think we would all be disappointed if that didn’t happen.”