WILMINGTON — When the Bruins’ development camp kicked off last Thursday, Tommy Cross had barely strapped on his gear when the jokes began to fly.
The camp, which concluded at Ristuccia Arena on Monday, was the sixth such gathering since 2007. Cross has been present for all of them. The most popular dig is that the camp should be renamed in the 22-year-old Cross’s honor.
“He wins the award for longevity here,” cracked assistant general manager Don Sweeney.
The camp’s honorary graybeard – 23-year-old invitee Justin Courtnall was officially the elder statesman — is finally entering the next phase of his career.
During each previous camp, Cross had to practice caution to retain his NCAA eligibility. That meant, compared to the CHL players, paying his own way at the team hotel to even forking over his own cash for lunch. After each camp, Cross was either preparing to return to the classroom at either the Westminster School or Boston College.
Now, hockey is a job instead of an amateur pursuit. This September, for the first time in his career, Cross will attend training camp in his chase for a spot on the varsity roster.
“Just doing the best I can to get ready for training camp in the fall,” said Cross.
Cross ended his NCAA career as an oxymoron: a four-year collegian. Cross wrung the most out of his college experience. As a sophomore, Cross became a national champion. As a senior, Cross (five goals, 19 assists in 44 games) captained the team that won its second title in three years. Cross majored in communications, minored in international studies, and is proud to consider himself a college graduate. Cross’s Chestnut Hill buddies (classmates include Barry Almeida, Paul Carey, Edwin Shea, and Chris Venti) are friends he’ll have for life.
“One, I wanted to win a national championship,” said Cross when explaining his decision to stay for four years. “We didn’t accomplish that my junior year. That’s something I wanted to do. Two, I didn’t feel like I had maxed out at that level. I felt I had some new levels to reach in the college ranks. Three, I made a commitment to them for four years. I honored that commitment.”
Cross’s four-year stay at BC, however, was partly out of necessity.
Even before the Bruins drafted Cross in June of 2007, the defenseman was struck with knee injuries. On June 23, 2007, when the Bruins traded second- and third-round picks to Chicago to draft Cross at No. 35, he approached their draft table on crutches.
Cross was limited to 24 games as a BC freshman in 2008-09. During his junior season, Cross dressed for 28 games.
In hindsight, Cross needed all four college seasons to overcome his injuries and fulfill his amateur development.
“I thought about it, absolutely,” Cross said of turning pro early. “But in the end, I thought it was best for me, as a hockey player, to be there to learn, continue to play, get my degree, then take the next step.”
Those injuries have changed Cross from the player the Bruins traded up for into the player he is now. Before Cross’s knee troubles, the Bruins believed they were drafting a dynamic-skating, hard-hitting, high-character two-way defenseman. Five years later, the Bruins acknowledge that as a pro, Cross probably won’t have the explosive mobility he once expected to have.
“It’s really hard to track him in that context because of the injuries,” Sweeney said when asked about Cross’s development at BC. “When we drafted him, you sort of see the athleticism and the dynamic skating aspect of his game. That’s changed a little bit. That’s just the facts he’s been faced with to change his game along those lines. He makes better reads in terms of his transitional passing. Whereas before, he might have been able to skate himself out of those situations. He’s done a good job. I think I’ve tracked that a little bit tighter the last two years, because that’s certainly going to have to be upheld at the next level as the game picks up more and more speed, and how he’s going to react to that.”
By his senior season, Cross matured into a safer, more reliable defenseman. Cross should be the same as a pro. Cross, who should start 2012-13 in Providence, projects to be a bottom-pairing, stay-at-home NHL defenseman. His coaches will expect Cross to play a conservative and physical game.
In that nature, Cross could become a defensive defenseman in the mold of ex-Bruin Mark Stuart. The 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound Cross likes to lean on forwards and plays with some bite. Cross will have to hone that edge as a pro. He will be expected to fight when necessary.
“The physical component of his game, I think, will continue to get better and better in the pro environment,” said Sweeney. “In the college environment, as a forward, I think you’re involved a little more physically. As a defenseman, it’s probably a little harder, except down low and in front of the net. Tommy seems to understand when to step up in the neutral zone and pick his spots. Physically, I think he’s looking forward to the challenge of what bigger and stronger guys at the pro level represent.”