As a nurse and teacher, Kelly and Rob Colton have spent their professional lives serving the community.
In mid-July, their son lit up the community.
Not since 1989, when Trenton’s Greg Grant made the Phoenix Suns roster as a 5-foot-6 Division III basketball player, has a local athlete electrified Mercer County at the professional level like Ross Colton.
And for one day, Robbinsville became Rossinsville.
July 16 was proclaimed “Ross Colton Day” in the township as its prodigal son brought the Stanley Cup home for a visit. It was hardware he helped earn, as Colton scored the game’s lone goal in Tampa Bay’s 1-0, Cup-clinching win over Montreal July 7.
The celebration started at Ice Land in Hamilton, where over 400 people showed up to salute Colton and take pictures in the rink where he grew up honing his game with the Mercer Chiefs. From there it was off to JoJo’s Tavern in Mercerville, where Lord Stanley’s trophy was placed on the bar of Colton’s favorite pizza place for fans to photograph.
The final stop was at the Robbinsville Town Center, where another huge throng came to hear brief speeches from Colton and Mayor David Fried before more photo-ops of Ross with the coveted hardware were offered.
In typical humble fashion, Colton was shocked at the turnouts.
“I was nervous for both the events,” he said several days after the excitement died down. “I was just hoping people would come out, and they were telling me ‘There’s gonna be way more people than you think.’ I really didn’t believe them until I was at the events. For me it was special to share with people that supported me.”
That last statement came as no surprise to Colton’s former Princeton Day School teammate Conrad Denise, who came down from Manhattan to attend the festivities.
“He brings the Cup out here, he likes to share it,” Denise said. “That’s how he’s always been. A good family guy, a guy that likes to share his success. He did it with his family and friends in Tampa and he’s doing that today with the township. It’s been awesome.”
As a rookie on the Lightning, Colton got the rare experience of skating around Amalie Arena holding the Cup with 18,000 delirious fans roaring their approval. The cheers re-ignited at the July 13 boat parade in Tampa Bay, where people Ross never met yelled wildly for him and his teammates.
Then, it was back to Jersey, where grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, coaches and countless others in the Colton Universe came to say thanks and congratulations.
How did it compare with the Florida outpouring of love?
“This is the best part,” said Kelly, standing off to the side of the Town Center Gazebo.
Ross’s older brother, Robert, agreed.
“It’s definitely a little more special because they have that connection to Ross here,” he said. “A lot of these people know Ross and grew up with him. They know how much time, work and sacrifice he put in. So, for him to be able to share that with them is just awesome.”
The player himself enjoyed both celebrations equally.
“I’d say they’re pretty similar,” Colton said. “But just to see the love and support that I have back home is just as cool as seeing all the support that we have down there.”
A conversation about Colton cannot take place without mentioning his tight-knit family. Kelly and Rob provided support every step of the way, driving Ross and Robert to early-morning practices or wherever they needed to be for club tournaments. When Kelly came down ill and couldn’t make the Cup clincher, Ross face-timed her from the ice and again from the lockerroom.
“He said ‘Mom where are you?’” Kelly said. “He knew I wanted to be a part of it. It meant so much to me that he did that.”
Robert, two years Ross’s senior, transferred to Princeton Day School as a junior to play with him, and the brothers are sharing an apartment at the Jersey Shore this summer. The pride and enthusiasm in his voice while at his little bro’s day came through sharp as a skate blade.
“I’m so proud of my brother and for him to be able to do this with the community,” Robert said. “I was really happy for my parents too. They made a lot of sacrifices. To see it pay off for Ross, it’s unbelievable. To be able to share this with community, family and friends...I’m glad we could have a day with the Cup like this.”
The proud grandparents were also on hand. As Pat and Jack Kiernan stood on the podium, well-wishers descended upon them like rock stars.
“I am on Cloud Nine and I am so proud of my grandson,” said Pat, now 82. “(The feeling) can’t be described. Nobody knows it unless it happens to them. It is unreal.”
“I’m about seven-foot tall right now, I’m happier than a pig in crap,” added Jack, who turns 84 in October. “I’m just so proud you can’t believe it.”
Their daughter felt the same.
“We’re very proud of him and we’re very humbled by all this,” Kelly said. “We’re very glad we can share it with everybody who was a big part of what he’s done.”
Denise, who graduated with Robert, works for Anheuser Busch and made sure there was plenty of Bud Lite on hand at the parade in Tampa. He was in attendance when Ross scored his first NHL goal and his first playoff goal.
The Princeton native has seen the ascension since high school.
“He was always a dominant hockey player at every level we played at,” he said. “He was two years younger than Rob and me, and every night
he was playing at our level. He was always a special player and always had a real knack for scoring goals.”
On the night Colton scored in his NHL debut, Denise asked Rob, a teacher at Crockett Middle School in Hamilton, if he’d rather see Ross score a cheap goal in his first game, or a top shelf goal five games later.
“His dad laughed and goes ‘We’ll take anything,’” Conrad said. “On his first shot on his second shift he scored a beautiful goal where he’s going hard to the net and wins a battle against three guys in front and scores. And then the same thing in Game Five. He goes to the net, beats a defenseman. The hardest place to go in hockey is in front of the net and put that puck in. It looks easy but that’s incredibly hard to do.”
Not surprisingly, Colton passed the glory off to others by saying “I just give the credit to my teammates and coaches who believed in me; and the guys who were out on the ice who made that play happen.”
Robert praised his brother for remaining down-to-earth, but noted that’s what happens when players have to battle hard every day to make it.
“He didn’t have a lot of D-1 (college) offers, he was drafted late when he went USHL (United States Hockey League) and he was like an over-ager in the NHL Draft,” Robert said. “Every step of the way he’s been humble, just put his head down and went to work. This year he’s just super thankful getting games and obviously to score the winning goal in the playoffs is just gravy on top for him. He’s been extremely humble about it, and just happy to be a part of it.”
He was even happier that his family could be part of it, especially at the parade.
“That was pretty crazy, almost as cool as winning the Cup,” Ross said. “My mom, my dad and my brother were able to come on the boat with me and experience that. It was awesome. They were just as much a part of it as I was since day one, so that was pretty cool to share that moment with them. Just to be able to see all the fans, see all the people that supported us and were along for the ride. It was awesome to share that with them too.”
As it all unfolded, at least one woman in Mercer County wasn’t surprised.
“If you knew Ross,” Pat Kiernan said, “you knew from day one that he was gonna be something someday. It was right there.”
Now it’s here.
An experience never to be forgotten or taken away.
And it made an entire community light up with pride.