‘Lead dog’ Cross the Thunderbirds’ respected leader

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

📝 by Patrick Williams

By now life has settled into quite a defined pattern for the Springfield Thunderbirds.

In the last eight-plus months, 92 games have been crossed off the calendar. Players have practiced more times than they wish to count. Video has been watched, rewound, and then watched one more time.

Head coach Drew Bannister’s pre-scout talking points have been discussed: Protect the puck. Put the puck into good spaces. Create traffic. And repeat until it is second nature for his players.

At most, the Thunderbirds have four games left on this journey, beginning tonight with Game 4 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Chicago Wolves (7 ET, AHLTV). Chicago holds a 2-1 series lead, and the Thunderbirds will have a sold-out MassMutual Center ready to see them try to even this battle.

Yet again it will be high-pressure hockey, a situation that has become familiar for Springfield. Perhaps too familiar for those who prefer their hockey with a bit less stress. Springfield endured a long struggle in the Eastern Conference Finals, trading wins with the Laval Rocket before putting together one of their finest efforts of the season in a Game 7 victory for the conference championship.

Situations like tonight are where the Thunderbirds have relied on someone like their captain, especially after a 4-0 loss in Game 3 that the Wolves largely controlled.

Tommy Cross, he’s our lead dog, and we follow his lead,” goaltender Charlie Lindgren said. “He’s amazing. He’s one of the best captains I’ve ever been around. A real quality guy. Doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he speaks up, everyone listens.”

Springfield’s task tonight calls for a calm but serious approach, and Cross is someone who can exemplify that often-complex balance.

“He’s such a good balance of keeping serious and keeping guys loose, too, and he’s always got a smile on his face,” forward Sam Anas said.

Only one player in these Finals ― Springfield teammate James Neal ― is older than the 32-year-old Cross; nine players in the series were born in 2000 or later. A 10th-year pro in his second stint with the Thunderbirds, Cross has played 570 regular-season games in the AHL. Just four NHL games (including one in the Stanley Cup Playoffs), but countless players would jump at the opportunity for even one of those contests. And now 67 Calder Cup Playoff games and counting.

A variety of descriptions have followed Cross from Providence to Cleveland to Springfield back to Providence and once more to Springfield.

Hard-nosed defenseman. Part father figure, part big brother. Mostly serious, but a bit of a joker. Always ready to play. Old-school in the best sense of the term.

Cross logged 67 games this season with the Thunderbirds, leading the blue line with 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists). That production has extended into the postseason, where his 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 16 games are one off the lead among defensemen for the entire league.

Last summer the St. Louis Blues added Cross on a one-year, two-way deal. In March, the Connecticut native agreed to a one-year AHL deal to remain with Springfield in 2022-23.

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

“This is Tommy’s team,” Bannister said. “I mean, the way we play out there is indicative of him as a personality, how long he’s been around in this league, and how much the guys respect him in that room.

“He’s such an important part of this team. Such a great human being. The guys behind him following, it’s pretty easy [with] a person like that on your team.”

A national champion at Boston College in 2010 and again in 2012, Cross is now continuing to track down a Calder Cup.

“We’ve got a good mix of guys and a good leadership group,” Cross said.

“I find that this group, everyone has settled into a role that suits them. Whether it’s being vocal, being quiet, everyone just has a different role that they’re comfortable with, and I think that’s important. It allows guys to be themselves, and you’re not asking guys to be someone that they’re not.

“We’ve just got a lot of guys that care about winning, and we’ve got a lot of gamers. We’ve got a lot of guys that show up on game day, they put in a shift, and they compete, and I appreciate that about this group.”

But Cross himself has earned some impressive endorsements with the Thunderbirds for creating that team environment. As the Thunderbirds go through their pre-game preparations today and into tonight, it will be Cross setting the team mood.

No less than Anas ― this year’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award winner for sportsmanship, determination, and dedication to hockey ― effusively praises his teammate and captain.

“He’s awesome,” Anas said. “I can’t say enough good things about Tommy as a player, as a captain, as a human, as a friend. He is just such an unreal guy. He’s got the passion for the game, and he’s just such a joy to be around every day. I’ve really enjoyed playing alongside him.

“Any team would be lucky to have him.”