Lost amid the NHL debuts last weekend of a number of big-name rookies was another notable first.
Jared Ross, who centered the Philadelphia Flyers’ fourth line during their season opener Saturday against the New York Rangers, became the first player born and trained in the state of Alabama to play in the League.
Ross, 26, was born in Huntsville, Ala., and played his college hockey at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. While the thought of a player stepping out of the Deep South and into the NHL sounds crazy, there is hockey tradition in Ross’ family. His uncle, Tom Ross, is the all-time leading scorer at Michigan State, while his father, Doug, played on the 1976 U.S. Olympic hockey team and was the long-time coach at the UAH.
"I just always loved playing," Ross told NHL.com. "I always had access to ice down there because he was the coach. My size (5-foot-9, 165 pounds) probably prevented me from playing football. I never really cared about football."
Youth hockey in Alabama isn’t quite the same as what they have in more hockey-centric areas.
"Hockey down in the south was way different because you practice twice during the week and then you have to travel, quite often 3-4 hours on the weekend, to play teams from Atlanta, Knoxville, Nashville," said Ross. "Lots of traveling. You practice twice during the week and play three games on the weekend."
Ross left Huntsville before his junior year of high school to play two years at Detroit Central Catholic and wanted to follow his uncle to Michigan State, but the Spartans weren’t interested. Instead, he went home to play for his father, where he had 72 goals and 158 points in 133 games with the Chargers, and he ranks in the top three in school history in goals, assists (86) and points. He led the team in scoring in each of his final three seasons, was a three-time College Hockey Association First-Team All-Star, and was the conference player of the year in 2003-04.
"Playing at UAH was a great experience," he said. "I wouldn’t change it for anything."
After his UAH career ended in 2004-05, he spent most of the next two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, and on March 1, 2007, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers’ AHL affiliate, for Niko Dimitrakos.
Last season with the Phantoms he had a break-out campaign, leading the team with 39 assists and 62 points, and his 23 goals was second on the squad. He followed that with a team-best five goals in 12 Calder Cup postseason games.
He capped an outstanding preseason this fall by scoring a goal for the Phantoms in an exhibition game against the Flyers, and a few days after being demoted to the AHL, he was recalled and placed in the opening-night lineup when Steve Downie was scratched with a knee injury.
Doug Ross made it to Philadelphia for the game, and it’s likely the NHL sold at least a few Center Ice packages to Alabama residents for the occasion.
"It’s amazing how many people called me, texted me, telling me congratulations," said Ross. "Huntsville had a bar that played the game and a lot of people went to watch it. The first time I stepped on the ice, all I could think of was don’t make any mistakes, but there’s a lot of people watching. My dad said no matter what happens, I’ve accomplished something."