July 21, 2021

Former PDS Hockey Star Colton Lives Out Dreams, Savoring Five-Month Whirlwind to Stanley Cup

CUP CELEBRATION: Ross Colton, left, and Steven Stamkos celebrate in the locker room after the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated Montreal 1-0 on July 7 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final to win the series 4-1 and earn the franchise’s second straight NHL title. Former Princeton Day School boys’ hockey standout Colton scored the lone goal in the finale to clinch the title. (Photo provided by Ross Colton)

By Bill Alden

The last five months have been a whirlwind for Ross Colton.

In February, the former Princeton Day School boys’ hockey standout started his third pro season by playing for Syracuse of the AHL. Weeks later, Colton, 24, had been called up to the Tampa Bay Lightning and scored a goal on the second shift of his NHL debut.

Carving out a niche on the squad by tallying nine goals and three assists in 30 regular season games, Colton, a 6’0, 202-pound forward, raised the level of his game as Tampa Bay entered the playoffs looking for its second straight Stanley Cup.

Starting on the fourth line and seeing time on second and third lines, Colton helped the Lightning top Florida 4-2 in a bruising first round series, top Carolina 4-1 in the second round and then edge New York Islanders 4-3 in a thrilling seven-game series to make it to the Stanley Cup Final against Montreal.

After Tampa Bay built a 3-1 lead in the Finals, Colton closed the deal on July 7, tallying a goal for the ages, notching the lone score in Game 5 as Tampa prevailed 1-0 to win the series 4-1 and win its second straight title.

Last Friday morning, the Stanley Cup was delivered to Colton’s home in Robbinsville. Over the next 24 hours, Colton took the Cup around to some of his Garden State stomping grounds, starting at the Ice Land Rink where he learned the game and played for the Mercer Chiefs, going to a park in his hometown for the celebration of “Ross Colton Day,” and then ending the day with a rooftop dinner at the Hotel LBI in Ship Bottom.

“It is crazy; this was always my dream as a kid, I put in so much time and effort,” said Colton last Thursday, his voice hoarse from a week of celebrations.

“I still remember watching last year when they won the Cup. I was so devastated that I wasn’t there. We had nine months off and I used that time to better myself and my mind to get in the right mindset so that I deserved to be there. Once I got called up, I didn’t want to look back. That is how I attacked it.”

After getting called up, Colton developed into a steady performer for the Lightning.

“When I first got called up, you are always nervous and don’t know what to expect,” said Colton.

“We had such a great group of older guys in the room and the coaching staff was awesome with me. The more games I got under my belt, the more confidence I got. I felt I was part of the team, not just the rookie call up. I solidified my spot. Once playoffs started and I was in the lineup, I just knew that hey this is it, I am a part of this team. I have got to contribute. I just wanted to roll with that.”

Thriving in the increased intensity of postseason action, Colton ended up with four goals and two assists in 23 playoff contests.

“Coming from the regular season with there barely being anyone in the stands and to go from like 5,000 people in the stands to 20,000 was a very big difference,” said Colton, who ended up with four goals and two assists in 23 playoff contests.

“There was a little more nerves, a little more energy. It is more physical, guys aren’t taking shifts off. Guys are going 100 percent every single shift with the hitting, backchecking, and forechecking. It is a different energy level from every single person, top to bottom.”

While the energy level may have increased, Colton maintained an unflappable mindset.

“I am trying to stay even-keeled, not get too high, not get too low,” said Colton.

“No matter what line I am on, I just try to play the same way throughout the playoffs. I was on the second line at the end of the series. Before I was on the third line and the fourth line. I bounced around a little bit. When I came to the rink everyday, it is just business as usual. I just want to get better in whatever I can do to help the team win.”

Coming into the Finals against Montreal, Colton and his teammates were confident they could take care of business.

“We knew that they were also a great team, they have got a young team but maybe a little inexperienced compared to us,” said Colton.

“We knew two games at home were going to be huge for us. We took it to them in the first game and then they took it to us in the second game. We got a huge goal from Blake Coleman at the end of the second period that took the wind out of their sails. Once we won that game and went up 2-0, we had all the confidence in the world that we were going to close them out.”

The Lightning took a 3-0 lead in the series and then lost 3-2 in overtime at Montreal in the fourth game, returning to Tampa Bay for Game 5 with the chance to clinch the title on home ice.

“That was probably the loudest game of the entire thing,” said Colton of the raucous crowd of 18,110 packing the Amalie Arena on July 7.

“I have watched the video when that clock hit zero about a 100 times and I get goose bumps every time. You can’t even really describe the feeling, how much time and effort everybody puts in from top to bottom, the coaches, players, and everyone’s family. For it all to pay off, there are no words. I really mean that, it is just an incredible feeling.”

Colton experienced an incredible moment with his Cup-clinching goal which came with 6:33 left in the second period.

“I just remember that the puck was stopped on the wall, I was taught go to the net when you are on the ice and good things happen,” recalled Colton.

“I saw it go to the point and come down to the other side on the wall. I knew Savy [David Savard] was going to find me. I tried to get good body position and get to the back post. What an unbelievable pass to put it on my stick. They did all the work and I just tapped it in.”

As the puck hit the net, Colton reacted by lifting his stick and hollering but doesn’t remember much else.

“That happened so fast, I kind of blacked out in the celebration stuff,” added Colton.

“It was unbelievable. I was just happy that I could seal the deal. The best way to put it is that is the biggest goal I will ever score in my life.”

In the aftermath of the win, Colton created another unbelievable memory as hoisted the Cup and skated around the rink in the traditional victory celebration.

“That is something I will remember forever,” said Colton. “It is heavier than I thought it would be, it was like 35 pounds. I was out of breath still, my heart hadn’t settled. Once I got it, I was almost shaking. There were so many people on the ice, they have these little wristbands all over the ice. I was like oh my god, I am going to step on one of those. Once you put it over your head, you lose all control. It is such a state of joy, to look around and see all of the fans going nuts.”

There was more joy for Colton after leaving the ice that night.

“Right after the game we went down the locker room with all of the champagne, cigars and beer set up for us,” said Colton.

“Everybody’s family and friends came down and they were celebrating with us. My dad and brother were in there with me.”

After a weekend of team partying, the Lightning festivities concluded with a boat parade along the Tampa Riverwalk last Monday.

“That was probably the best day of my life, besides the final game,” said Colton.

“We woke up in the morning, we all met at the rink. They had these trolley buses to take you and your friends and family over and they had all of these boats lined up for us. We got on the boats we were assigned to, my mom, my dad, my brother, and my one buddy Conrad Denise and a couple of other guys on the team. I knew it was going to be unbelievable but it exceeded every single one of my expectations. It was so much better than I even thought it was going to be. There were so many boats and so many fans, just interacting with them on the sides and spraying them with champagne was awesome.”

It was awesome for PDS head coach Scott Bertoli to see one of his former stars come through on hockey’s biggest stage with the game-winning goal in the finale.

“He didn’t shy away, he went to the front of the net,” said Bertoli.

“He bumped off a defender, he was strong on his stick. It was a hard pass because it came through traffic and he redirected it into the net. For that to ultimately be the winning goal, I can’t imagine what was going through his mind.”

In assessing Colton’s progress, Bertoli praised the young forward’s all-around game.

“Everyone talks about his ability to score, his exceptional skill set and how he is a wonderful kid and a great teammate,” said Bertoli.

“What impressed me the most was his ability to adapt and score up and down that lineup with world class players. He played on their second line in games four and five. He played the vast majority of the season while he was up on the fourth line. There are not a ton of guys that are new, breaking into the league that can make an impact up and down the lineup like that. There was a physical element to his game. He was finishing checks, he was getting in on forechecks and going to the wall. He was doing all of the little things right.”

Bertoli, a former hockey standout at Princeton University, got an inside view of Colton’s contributions from Jeff Halpern, a college teammate and assistant coach for the Lightning

“Jeff described him as a gamer,” said Bertoli. “He has played in many big games and has been the go-to guy. On that team, the reality is that he is not a go-to guy because he has all of these world class guys in the game playing ahead of him. When those moments arise, he never shied way from it.”

In Bertoli’s view, Colton’s success is a watershed moment for the local hockey scene.

“I think for the program, for hockey in Mercer County, for hockey in New Jersey, it gives people hope,” said Bertoli.

“It is exciting for everybody who has followed him over the last four or five months and everyone who knows him. I think most importantly they know how good of a person he is, both him and his brother [Rob, who also starred for PDS] were such good kids. They made an impact on the ice but they really endeared themselves to everyone in our community.”

Getting to work with Colton is a highlight of Bertoli’s coaching career.

“It is pretty rewarding, it is not something that you ever anticipate happening,” said Bertoli.

“To see him get to that level back in February, I couldn’t be happier for him and his family and everyone who has been part of his growth. Having that connection with Ross and being fortunate enough to work with him for two years, I stayed in touch with him like a lot of people did. What a lot of people appreciate who know Ross and have been a part of his life, whether it be for six months, two years or 15 years, he stayed in touch with people.”

Looking ahead, Bertoli believes that Colton has what it takes to be in the NHL for years.

“You can’t do anything more than that kid did this year; it will take time to sink in, the magnitude of what he has accomplished,” said Bertoli.

“With the work he has put in to improve in the areas he needed to improve on, I know he is going to become a better player and a better pro and continue to impact at that level. I think he has set himself up to have a lengthy career.

True to form, Colton is itching to get back on the ice. “I am going to work on my skating, that is the name of the game these days,” said Colton.

“Everybody is fast, everybody can fly. I am going to take some time off and get my body right and then in a couple of weeks, get right back at it.”