With his All-American good looks and a smile that can light up Tampa Bay’s Amalie Arena, Ross Colton looks like a guy straight out of central casting. And that works out just fine since the Robbinsville native has spent the past five months living the stuff that movie scripts are made of.
His saga, however, may have been dismissed as too hokey or cliché by Hollywood. The only way it could truly be good, was to be real.
And it was.
From underrated minor leaguer to Stanley Cup hero, Colton’s remarkable ride is one of professional sports feel-good happenings of 2021.
“It’s truly a miraculous story,” said Conrad Denise, who played with Ross and his brother Robert at Princeton Day School. “It didn’t happen overnight. Ross just didn’t show up in Tampa and just start playing.”
Far from it.
Like most overnight sensations, Colton needed nearly 20 years of nights—and days—to get there.
From Sharon Elementary School to Pond Road to Robbinsville High to PDS, the kid was whacking pucks all along the way. He devoted his entire travel hockey career to one club, the Mercer Chiefs—to whom he is forever grateful. But compared to countless NHL players who saw international competition on the way up, it was a somewhat small pond.
Following graduation, Colton spent two years with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League. After being drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning, he chose to play two years for the University of Vermont before joining Tampa’s organization in 2018. After two full years with the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch, Colton was called up three games into this season on Feb. 21.
Four days later, in his first NHL game he scored on his first NHL shot against the Carolina Hurricanes. That in itself would be good enough for some rookies, but it was just the beginning for Colton. After initially being unsure how long he would stay with the big club, Colton eventually got steady shifts and collected nine goals and three assists in the regular season.
Then came the playoffs, in which he had four goals and two assists. The biggest of all was the game-five winner in a 1-0 victory over the storied Montreal Canadiens, which gave Tampa its second straight Stanley Cup. Colton became just the fifth rookie since 1927 to score the Cup-clincher and first since 2003 when Mike Rupp did it for the Devils (Colton’s favorite boyhood team). Colton joined a list that includes such immortals as Brett Hull, Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe as players who scored Cup-deciding goals.
It’s intoxicating, but Colton had to inhale a lot of grimy locker rooms along the way.
“He worked from the time he was five-years-old at Ice Land (in Hamilton), with the Mercer Chiefs, through high school, at UVM,” Denise said. “He’s been working his butt off to get to the next level and people doubted him at every level. They said he wasn’t able to do it in college, he wasn’t able to do it in the AHL. Well he starts doing well in the AHL but he’s not gonna make it to the NHL.
“But he’s continually worked and worked and pushed and he’s proven everyone wrong to a certain extent. I didn’t think he was gonna score the game-winner. I knew he’d score a goal and contribute; but to do that, it was amazing to see and I’m just so happy.”
So was all of Tampa Bay and all of Robbinsville, as the first NHL player from Mercer County has set the bar high for any local rookies who may come after him. Colton would love to see it happen, as he hopes his accomplishments can boost youth hockey in the area.
“That kind of was my goal from day one, to bring the Cup back home and just to grow the game, especially over at Ice Land,” he said. “It’s a pretty incredible story. I played there my whole life, I never traveled all over the world to play. I stayed right in my backyard.
“I trusted (Chiefs coach) Chris Barcless to develop me over the years. That’s why I still skate with him to this day over the summer. He’s such a great coach. I just hope kids from this area see that if you stick with it and trust and practice and do all the right things that good things will happen.”
Once Colton got called up, they happened pretty fast. He was put on the taxi squad the first day but suited up four days later. After scoring against the Hurricanea, Colton gradually became one of the boys.
“Just from day one it was so awesome,” he said. “The team brought me in and took me under their wing— some of the older guys, veteran leaders—and just made me feel part of it. I think that’s kind of what helped lead to my success. I felt comfortable when they gave me the confidence. The whole experience was just incredible.”
The 24-year-old noted that Lightning players such as “Pat Maroon was awesome for me. Guys like Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, just to name a few, were some of the older guys from day one who were always looking out for me.”
During his first 10 games, Colton was in and out of the lineup. But he played regularly in the final 20 games of the regular season and knew then that he was a playoff participant.
“At that point I kind of realized that I solidified myself in the lineup,” he said. “When somebody got hurt in our last game I got moved up a line and was playing with some other players. I kind of realized this team relies on me, this team needs me, and I just kind of had to be ready for whenever my name’s called and whatever situation it is.
“Then, throughout the playoffs, it was the same way. I played on three different lines with a bunch of different guys and whoever I was with I was just ready to play that role I needed to play.”
Colton played it to the hilt. He had a plus-3 mark during the regular season, meaning Tampa scored three more goals than its opponent with Colton on the ice. That bumped up to plus-4 in 23 playoff games.
Once the post-season began, Colton entered a whirlwind new world. Amalia Arena was allowed to reach capacity for the first time after having limited seating during the regular-season due to Covid-19. And the on-ice intensity went up a few hundred levels.
“The playoffs were a whole different animal from the regular season,” Colton said. “Going from 5,000 fans to 20,000 made it that much crazier. And guys are obviously bearing down more, finishing checks, playing tougher because they know what’s at stake.”
Colton’s first playoff goal came against Florida in a six-game set that he said “was probably the craziest out of all four series.”
Colton scored another against the Panthers, had a goal and assist in the Carolina series and an assist against the Islanders. His lone point against Montreal could arguably be termed the Lightning’s biggest goal of the year. With 13:27 gone in the first period, Colton battled his way in front of the net and re-directed a perfect pass from David Savard.
No one knew it at the time, but the kid from Robbinsville just put himself in the history books.
There were still two loooong periods remaining and the drama cranked up as the time ticked down.
“I would say the last 10 minutes felt like two hours,” Colton said. “The clock was moving so slow.”
When the horn sounded, the party started on the ice.
“It was crazy,” Colton said. “When you see all the fans taking pictures and all the flashing lights and cheers, it’s pretty surreal. Just a short time ago I was playing in Syracuse in front of no fans and then you go on to win the Stanley Cup in front of 20,000 people. It’s pretty crazy to think about.”
It did not hit Colton until he reached the locker room that he did more than win a Stanley Cup. He placed his name among the greatest to ever play the game with his winning goal.
“I didn’t think about it during the game, per say,” Colton said. “But afterwards, when I was in the lockerroom celebrating with my dad and brother, we were kind of like ‘Holy crap did that just happen?’”
It happened all right. Just like the script was written, with Ross Colton serving as the author.