Back home, Cross enjoying career’s full circle

Photo: China Wong

by Ryan Smith AHL On The Beat

Springfield Thunderbirds defenseman Tommy Cross is something of an anomaly in professional sports. Where most players are thrilled to be given a chance with any team, the Simsbury, Conn., native has longed to prevent from straying far from his roots.

The beginnings of that dream came to fruition before he even turned pro, when legendary Boston College head hockey coach Jerry York offered Cross a scholarship.

“It was my dream to play for (Boston College). I grew up a (BC) Eagles fan, and I have always been a homebody,” Cross said. “I don’t think it’s by mistake that I’ve played so close to home (so often).”

While Cross won two national championships with the legendary bench boss, he says York’s biggest and most impactful trait was more of a life lesson than anything hockey-centric.

“(Jerry) can flip any negative situation and find the positive in it. That’s what he taught us, and he’s such a positive, upbeat guy. (In his) outlook on life, everything is positive, and the positive energy is contagious.”

There’s something else to know about Tommy Cross. For as fierce a competitor as he has been throughout a career that has featured postseason hockey every year, the only thing that is more sterling than his playoff propensity is a universal level of respect and admiration.

Photo: Alan Sullivan

“Number one – he’s an unbelievable person, and your leaders have to be great people off the ice,” Thunderbirds head coach Geordie Kinnear said when first asked about Cross in September.

“He’s, first off, a great person and a great guy to have around. To battle with him will be a lot more fun than battling against him,” Springfield captain Paul Thompson said of his longtime Providence rival.

Cross is self-aware in the truest sense of the term, a trait instilled in him by his parents, Tom and Kelly.

“(Being a good person) is bigger than hockey; it’s an everyday life thing. I try to have a positive impact on other people. Everyone talks about how it’s important to be a leader and lead by example, but before you can get to that step, I think you have to be a good citizen and do your part – treating people the right way, and doing the right things in the whole world – and then bring that into the locker room.”

Impact has been felt everywhere Cross has set foot over his career. Following two championships with Boston College, Cross has played in 51 AHL playoff games, all before his 30th birthday this past September. He has yet to miss the postseason in his professional career, which includes one Stanley Cup Playoff game with Boston in 2017.

Drafted by the Bruins, Cross became an AHL stalwart, and that culminated in him logging the most games played in Providence Bruins history. Yet in the summer of 2018, Cross made an uncharacteristic decision when he and his wife, Alaina, made the move west as he signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets and, in turn, spent the 2018-19 season with the Cleveland Monsters.

“(Alaina) and I decided that, sometimes, in order to grow, you have to stretch yourself and step outside your comfort zone. It was a fabulous experience going out there and meeting a whole new organization and coaches and teammates, and it was definitely different to live further from home, but we saw it as an adventure and had a fantastic experience. We turned around and came back close to home, but I think I’ll look back and always be glad that I went out there.”

Photo: John Saraya

Last July, Cross saw yet another chance to come home, and with the addition of a son, Bowen, the importance of returning to roots was a no-brainer. The veteran blueliner signed a two-year contract with the Panthers, and sure enough, Cross is now playing as close to home as he has ever been since starring for Simsbury High School some 15 years ago. Bowen and Alaina now live mere minutes from Tom and Kelly Cross.

“We were so happy and fortunate that (Florida’s) interest was there,” Tommy recounts. “I’m lucky that there have been options to (stay close to home). My parents are two of my best friends, and to be able to raise (Bowen) near his grandparents and have their support has been great.”

It has been half his life since Tommy Cross was a teenager embarking upon high school in Simsbury. As he prepared to leave the MassMutual Center to make the short drive home across the Massachusetts-Connecticut border on this day, he marveled at the circle of his hockey life.

“I think about (my career’s journey) most of the time when I’m driving through town. On a game day, I remember going to a certain restaurant for a pregame meal when I was in high school, and now here I am 15 years later going to the same place. It makes you feel old at times because you realize how much time has passed, but you pinch yourself because it’s cool to be back in the same area.

Cross and the Thunderbirds have faced some adversity in recent times as they fight to keep Cross’ playoff streak alive, yet to the relatively new father, in a profession fueled by pressure and expectations, Cross’ biggest worry has nothing to do with anything he does in-game.

“My biggest fear is that I (will) leave hockey and have not impacted enough people. People care when you wear a certain jersey – I try to use that, whether it’s putting a smile on someone’s face or giving out advice to a young kid. (Being called a great person) is a good compliment from people before they meet me, and I hope they say the same thing after they meet me.”