Former PDS Star Colton Enjoys Special NHL Debut, Scoring Goal in 2nd Shift for Tampa Bay Lightning
THUNDERSTRUCK: Former Princeton Day School boys’ hockey star Ross Colton enjoys the moment after scoring a goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning last Wednesday in his NHL debut. Forward Colton tallied 6:43 into the contest on a feed from Victor Hedman to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead as they went on to a 3-0 win. (Photo provided courtesy of Ross Colton)
By Bill Alden
It took place in Tampa Bay last Wednesday evening, but it left Ross Colton thinking of a Hollywood script.
Making his NHL debut for the Tampa Bay Lightning, former Princeton Day School standout Colton scored a goal on his second shift of the night, helping the Lightning to a 3-0 win.
“Two days afterwards, it still hadn’t really sunk in,” said Colton, 24, in a phone interview last Sunday.
“It felt like a movie or something. It was like ‘wow, that was awesome.’ That is what I kept telling myself, ‘that was awesome.’”
Colton’s awesome moment drew the attention of friends, former teammates, and coaches in the area as texts and tweets were buzzing around Central Jersey last Wednesday night.
“The thing that really sticks out is how many people reached out and were so supportive of me,” recalled Colton, a 6’0, 191-pound forward.
“After the game, my phone was pretty crazy. I had 200 or so texts and a bunch of Instagram posts and snap chats. It was almost overwhelming. I am doing my best to thank everyone. It is so awesome to see that many people follow me and support me. It was pretty cool, for sure.”
Colton has worked long and hard to reach the pinnacle of pro hockey. After playing two years at PDS, he headed north to play for the Taft School (Conn.) from 2013-15 and face tough New England scholastic competition. He then played two years at the junior level for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the United States Hockey League, getting chosen by the Lightning as the 118th pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Moving on to the college level, Colton played two seasons at the University of Vermont from 2016-18, tallying 28 goals and 22 assists in 69 games. He then started his pro career with the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League (AHL), Tampa Bay’s top affiliate club, tallying 14 goals and 17 assists in 2018-19 and 11 goals and 31 assists in 2019-20.
In making the jump to the AHL, Colton focused on developing a professional approach.
“It was really just learning how to become a pro, it is definitely a different lifestyle,” said Colton.
“You go from college where you practice all of the time, you have to manage school and working out and all of that other stuff. You get to the AHL and it is grueling. It is a longer schedule, I think you play almost 80 games. You have got to manage your body. You have so much more time away from the rink. You have got to take care of yourself. It is learning how to mature and adjust to the pace of play.”
It took a while for Colton to get up to speed in his first season with the Crunch.
“As a younger guy and a rookie, I was feeling my way, adjusting to how I had to play so it took me a little longer to get my feet under me,” said Colton.
“It is like anything else, you get a little bit of confidence and you start jelling with the guys. You just feel more comfortable. I got more confident and the numbers started to produce a little more.”
With one pro campaign under his belt, Colton took his game to a higher level in the 2019-20 campaign.
“I tried my best to have a really, really good summer and work on my conditioning and speed because at the next level it is all about speed and skating,” said Colton.
“I just wanted to work on my skating and stuff like that. I came in with more confidence because I knew what my role was going to be. I was going to have more of a top six kind of role, be on the power play, first or second line. I came in with a different mindset, knowing my role from day one.”
Coming into training camp this fall with the Lightning, Colton was determined to earn a spot in the NHL.
“I wanted to make the team out of camp,” said Colton. “They just said it was tough. Being the Stanley Cup champs, it is not the easiest lineup to crack. They told me to keep working, you are so close. This is such a great organization to be with, they said go down to Syracuse, you are right there, stick with it and just have a good mindset.”
After tallying a goal and two assists in three games this season for the Crunch, Colton got the call to head south to Tampa.
“We played Wilkes Barre-Scranton on a Saturday (February 13) and right after the game, the GM of the Crunch [Stacy Roest] called me,” said Colton.
“Once I saw his name pop up on my phone right after the game, I had an idea what was going on. I was thinking positively. I took the call and he said, ‘we are calling you up, you earned it, you deserve it.’ I immediately called my parents and they were ecstatic. I will definitely remember that call.”
After starting to skate with the Lightning in practice, Colton learned that he would be making his NHL debut on February 24 against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I found out I was playing Wednesday on Tuesday afternoon when coach [Jon] Cooper called me and said you are playing tomorrow night,” said Colton.
“He said I wanted to give you a heads up to tell your parents if they want to come. It was nice that he gave me a heads up to tell them. I was a little nervous that they weren’t going to be able to come because of COVID. They hopped on a plane and got down here and luckily the Lightning are having fans in their arena so they were able to come.”
With that advance notice, Colton had quite a cheering section on hand at the Amalie Arena, including his parents, older brother Rob, a former PDS hockey star himself, his grandmother, one of his aunts, a cousin, and two of his best friends, including Conrad Denise, another former Panther hockey standout.
As he looked forward to face-off that night, Colton tried to calm his nerves by maintaining a professional mentality.
“I didn’t want to overthink it, my whole mindset throughout the day was treat it like it is another game and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do normally,” said Colton.
“It was just play my game so I just took it like it was just a normal day.”
Once at the rink, Colton had to go through a team tradition for players making their debut, skating alone on the ice, hitting pucks strewn on the ice.
“They do the rookie lap when you go on ice, I skated for that,” said Colton.
“I knocked the pucks off the bench because I am the only one on the ice. What was going on in my head was please don’t step on one of these, that would not be good. I was just trying to take it all in, it was just such an amazing moment.”
The reality of what Colton accomplished hit him as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
“I think it really sunk in for me during the National Anthem,” said Colton.
“I looked around and I was like, ‘I made it.’ I have really been dreaming about this since I was 4 or 5 when I started playing at IceLand in the Learn to Skate program, and then playing in house league.”
In skating through his first shift on Wednesday, Colton had to fight off some butterflies.
“My heart was pounding for sure, I was a little nervous,” said Colton.
“We had a d-zone shift so I was like oh boy. It was just do a shift. Once I got to the bench, I was like OK, I have got the first one out of the way, now I can play my game.”
Minutes later, Colton displayed his offensive game, banging home a feed from Victor Hedman at 6:43 of the first period to score his first career goal.
“I tried to get to the front of the net, they always say good things happen when you are around the front of the net,” said Colton, recalling the sequence that led to the score.
“He wheeled around there, he was flying and there was a defender on me and I tried to just push off him and find some open space. Hedman put it in the right spot and I just banged it home. After that, the look on my face says it all. I was kind of in shock. I was ‘oh my god, is this real.’ It happened so quickly, it kind of squeaked in.”
Colton’s spontaneous reaction fired up his teammates. “All of the guys were pretty excited for me,” said Colton.
“They were joking with me before the game, saying don’t be too nervous and all that stuff. Once they see something like that happen, you could tell in their faces that they were all excited too. It was a special moment.”
PDS head coach Scott Bertoli saw something special in Colton from the time he arrived at McGraw Rink in 2011.
“I knew he was an exceptional talent; as a freshman and a sophomore, he was averaging a goal a game,” said Bertoli.
“I think he had 45 goals in 49 games. He had a knack for scoring that I would only compare to people I have played with like a Jeff Halpern (Bertoli’s teammate at Princeton University, a longtime NHL player, and current assistant coach for the Lightning). He was just that adept at scoring. His ability in scoring areas to elevate pucks, one time pucks, and get shots off quick, always impressed me.”
With Colton showing the potential to someday play in the pros, his breakthrough goal last week was thrilling to his former teammates and coaches alike.
“On Wednesday there were a lot of text messages flying back and forth from guys that had played with Ross; like myself and our staff, they recognized how special he was,” said Bertoli.
“Of all the kids we have had, if you ever thought someone would be good enough, he was probably the one. There were a lot of guys who were excited for him.”
It is exciting for the PDS program to have an alum in the NHL.
“We have had some great kids come through the program and do some exceptional things in all walks of life,” said Bertoli.
“I talked to Halpy [Jeff Halpern] afterward and he was saying it is a pretty cool story. The kid stuck with it, he worked for his opportunities,
and now he is playing on arguably one of the top teams in the league. What Halpy was really excited about was the reaction of Ross when he scored. He said it was almost like the kid couldn’t believe it.”
For Colton, being around some of the top players in the sport on a daily basis is cool.
“You grow up and you see these guys and some of them are future Hall of Famers,” said Colton.
“It is awesome to see the way that they carry themselves, how professional they are and how they go about their business. You just take what you can learn from them. It is not like these guys just show up and it is all natural. They work so hard. It is so cool to be around them but at the same time they are just normal guys. They come to work every day ready to go. They don’t have these egos or anything, they are guys who want to have a good time and win hockey games.”
Having been placed on the team’s taxi squad after his debut, Colton is looking to apply those lessons to stay in the NHL.
“For me, it is keep doing what I have been doing; I want to have a positive attitude,” said Colton.
“I am just really happy to be here; even just getting the opportunity to play in that game the other day. Every day I come to practice and I try to do as much as I can to get better, whether it is on the ice or in the gym. I want to show them that I am ready to make that jump to the next level and be a regular.”
If Colton continues to get better, he should be able to produce quite a sequel to last Wednesday’s opening scene.