William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles John Cotten, director of the Purple Puck high school hockey tournament.
John Cotten remembered attending his first Purple Puck high school hockey tournament in Washington 11 years ago and thinking "There's no way my holiday could be spent like this."
"My son was a freshman playing at Gonzaga," Cotten said of Gonzaga College High School, which hosts the annual December tournament. "And the tournament was kind of not good at that time; it only had five teams, and two of them were from Gonzaga."
Despite having no hockey tournament experience, Cotten volunteered to assist and eventually take over as the Purple Puck's director in hopes of keeping one of the East Coast's longest-running high school tournaments relevant.
More than a decade later, the tournament is thriving largely thanks to Cotten, a hockey parent with a football background. Sixteen teams, including top schools from Illinois and Pennsylvania, will compete in the Dec. 26-30 event at the Fort Dupont Ice Arena in Washington.
Under Cotten's guidance, the Purple Puck, formally called the National Capital Hockey Tournament, has hosted some of the nation's best high school hockey teams.
Eight teams that participated in the Purple Puck in 2017, the tournament's 25th anniversary, went on to win state championships.
"John's done a fantastic job," said Tom Egan, a board member for the hockey program at St. Joseph's Preparatory School of Philadelphia, which won Pennsylvania's Class AAA state boys' championship in 2018. "From a hockey standpoint, the quality of play is outstanding. It's as high a quality of tournament as you can have in the country for high school teams that aren't part of that Shattuck-St. Mary's [School] group."
Loyola Academy, which won the 2018 Illinois boys' championship, also looks forward to the Purple Puck each year because of the personal touches provided by Cotten, from handing out commemorative pucks to the three stars of each game to offering dining tips.
"Everything is very personalized with him," said Bridget Thies, a registrar and equipment manager for the Loyola team. "He talks to everyone like they're family -- it could be a parent of a kid on an incoming team, a manager, a coach. Traveling from Chicago to [Washington] D.C., that's a big trip to take a high school boys' team on and he's been very accommodating in helping find lodging, buses, activities, restaurants, the whole nine yards. He's always available."
Bill Slater, Gonzaga's coach, joked that Cotten is too good at his job.
"He continues to get great high schools to come in and play, which is great for the tournament. But it means that Gonzaga doesn't win its tournament every year," Slater said.
Cotten, a former Washington youth football league commissioner, got involved in hockey through his son, Marquise. The younger Cotten played for the Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, the oldest minority-oriented youth hockey program in North America, from 1999 to 2008.
Marquise Cotten went on to play hockey at Gonzaga, where his father's involvement in hockey deepened after being disappointed watching his first Purple Puck tournament.
"I wanted to see a tournament that was more than about the competition of hockey," he said. "I wanted to see a tournament that was fan-friendly. I wanted to see a bright rink. I wanted to see teams fellowshipping off the ice, and I wanted to see people giving back to the community."
As director, Cotten made changes large and small. He encouraged teams to bring items that they could swap with opponents to promote camaraderie, and he encouraged Gonzaga parents decorate Fort Dupont to give Washington's only indoor rink a cheery holiday atmosphere.
He stressed the need to give back to the Washington community by holding silent auctions and bake sales during the tournament and donating the proceeds to local charities or organizations.
The biggest thing he did was sell out-of-town teams on coming to the nation's capital during the holidays. Fort Dupont, with its glass side walls that offer stunning views of the U.S. Capitol building, is the only indoor rink in Washington.
"You get a lot of tournaments that say they're in Washington, but they're really 20 miles out," he said. "I tell teams, 'You can come here play your game, run downtown, see the monuments, then come back and play some more great hockey.'"
Thies said Loyola follows his advice and makes the Washington trip an educational visit.
"The kids, we always make sure they got to Arlington National [Cemetery] to make sure they understand the symbolism of the 21 steps and the 21-gun salute and all those kinds of things," she said. "To see all those monuments and what they represent in person is very impactful for kids."
Cotten envisions expanding the Purple Puck to include a girls' division once the Fort Dupont rink builds a long-proposed second ice sheet.
"I think the tournament is in a good place overall with the level of competition, but it's about expanding it into other areas," he said. "We have a lot of females come out of [the Washington area] who are going on to play big hockey, but we've been unable to showcase them, and we'd like to do that."