Cross has Thunderbirds prepared for hurdles ahead

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

Springfield Thunderbirds captain Tommy Cross is no stranger to the postseason.

After all, in every season he has played professionally where a postseason was contested, he has reached the playoffs.

However, the 2022 Calder Cup Playoffs saw Cross and his Springfield squad go further than he had gone in his career ― to within three victories of the city’s eighth title. In the end, the league’s top team, the Chicago Wolves, would instead lift the Cup.

As his 11th pro season begins, the 33-year-old blueliner used his short time away from the rink as a chance to reminisce on his club’s thrilling run, including a Game 7 victory over Laval for the Eastern Conference title on June 15.

“I think the summer provides a great chance to look back and reflect and recap. It was a blast ― it was probably the most fun I had playing hockey since college,” Cross said.

Championships are not new to Cross, either. He won a pair of national titles in college for the legendary Jerry York at Boston College.

So what made the Thunderbirds so cohesive? Cross admits it is not the easiest thing to convey to those outside the dressing room.

“It’s difficult to explain,” Cross said. “If you look across the league at the end of a season, they’d say they had a great group of guys and that it was disappointing to see the season end, but I think it starts with the people in the locker room. That’s the base for the relationships.

And in a season where COVID-19 presented speed bumps never before seen, it tested the will of Springfield’s whole team.

“As you go through things over the course of the year, you get to know people closer, you have some adversity, you have some success, and I think that’s where the culture and relationships flourish and develop. If you get to play long enough into the playoffs, that’s where you really see how close you’ve become as a group.”

Cross captained the Thunderbirds to the Eastern Conference championship last season. (Photo: Lucas Armstrong)

The 2022-23 Thunderbirds do miss some key pieces from last June. Dakota Joshua, MacKenzie MacEachern, Sam Anas, and Charlie Lindgren are among the players who have moved on to new adventures in their careers, but for the 18 returning members of the squad, in the eyes of the captain, the overarching goal remains universal.

“I consider the young players the core of our team,” Cross said. “They play big roles, they’re young and developing and are important pieces for the organization. The coaches talk about ‘the program’ that we have here. When you view it as a program, there is a certain way we do things. There’s a culture and there are certain roles that everyone has. Everyone takes ownership in it and we all want to move along together and have success together rather than 30 new guys coming in and having their own goals and dreams for that year.”

The new campaign did not begin quite according to plan, as Springfield was on the wrong side of three tightly contested games to begin 2022-23 before earning its first win on Friday night. Head coach Drew Bannister and his captain Cross have both stated there is a newfound target on the T-Birds’ backs coming off a trip to the Finals. Shortly after the Conference Champions banner was raised at MassMutual Center on Oct. 15, four months to the day after they advanced to the Finals, Cross felt a pretty immediate flip of the switch.

“The buzz and the energy that was in the city and the arena (before Game 7) was something I’ll always remember,” Cross said. “But what I’ve noticed once we got back for training camp, the memories begin to fade into the background, and the competitiveness comes back up and you [find yourself saying] we have to get back to where we were.”

Different players have different motivating factors, but for Cross, the image of the Wolves’ celebration drives him.

“For me, I saw them celebrating and I say I want to have that feeling. We’ve had success with this group, but in the end, we didn’t get to where we want to go.

“That fuels your fire.”