Although he only played a handful of games for the Red Wings, former defenseman Cory Cross learned very quickly just how special it is to play for the 11-time Stanley Cup championship franchise. In fact, Cross got his first glimpse into the nature of the Wings’ organization as soon as his plane touched down in Motor City, when he received a phone call from his new captain, Steve Yzerman.
“It all started with Stevie, he gave me a phone call when I landed in Detroit and just welcomed me to the team,” Cross said. “I had just had a baby girl a couple days before. It was a hectic time for me, and he said, ‘If you need anything give me a call, or if not I’ll see you in practice tomorrow,’ and congratulated me on the baby.”
Cross played only 16 games with the Wings during the 2005-06 season, but even that short stay made the 6-foot-5, 225-pound blue-liner wish he had spent more time with the club.
“It was a pretty cool message,” Cross said. “Nothing like that ever happened to me before and that just showed what the organization was about right from that moment … I couldn’t believe how the organization from top to bottom was just all class. It was the best organization I played with.”
In his first shift with the Wings, Cross scored a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks – the only goal he scored for the team. Despite having such a short stint in Detroit, Cross had his eyes on the Stanley Cup finals at the end of the 2006 season.
“I thought we were going to win that year,” Cross said. “I thought we were the best team in the league, I thought. Well, we were in the regular season. The leadership was spectacular there. With (Chris) Chelios, and (Brendan) Shanahan and Yzerman … the list goes on and on.”
Although they had won the Presidents’ Trophy, the Wings lost to the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the playoffs, and the end of the 2006 season also marked the end of Cory Cross’ NHL career, which had also seen him play three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs a few years prior.
Games between Toronto and Detroit were few and far between while Cross was with the Leafs, but he quickly learned that the matchups between the longtime rivals are as meaningful for the fans as they are for the players.
“Any time the Leafs play any Original Six teams, it’s always a big deal,” he said. “So every time we played Detroit, the fans were excited; there was a buzz that was higher than just a normal game.”
Although both Toronto and Detroit made it to the playoffs every year that Cross played for the Leafs, the two teams never met in the postseason – and hasn’t since 1993. Cross attributes the lack of playoff confrontations as a reason why the rivalry had quieted by the time he ended up in Toronto.
“It wasn’t like the big rivalry that we had, there hadn’t been any of the playoff games that Toronto played Detroit,” he said. “Playoff series always create that animosity between teams and there hadn’t been any of those series. So I don’t think the rivalry between the Red Wings was all that big for players, maybe more for the fans.”
Despite never meeting Detroit in the playoffs, Cross and the Leafs were busy during his time with the team. In both 2000 and 2001, the Leafs defeated the Ottawa Senators, then lost to the New Jersey Devils. In Game 3 of the 2001 playoffs against the Senators, Cross scored a pivotal overtime goal, allowing the Leafs to sweep the series.
“That was definitely the highlight for me being in Toronto, was that goal,” Cross said. “Puck bounced right to me, I just one-timed it in and then we beat them in four games. So that was a pretty big goal in my career. Being the king of the city for a day and a half was pretty cool. That was Game 3, we were the big underdog against Ottawa going into that series.”
The following year, the Leafs came even closer to winning a Stanley Cup, but were stopped by the Carolina Hurricanes in the semifinals.
“When I was in Toronto, obviously the city wanted a winner,” Cross said. “And I thought we had a good chance, the one year we lost in the semis. I thought that year was going to be the year that we were going to make the finals against Detroit again. Arturs Irbe beat us pretty much single-handedly, he stood on his head.”
Playoff runs weren’t the only thing that Leafs’ fans were excited about during Cross’ time in Toronto. The season before Cross arrived to the city, the team moved from the Maple Leaf Gardens to the brand new Air Canada Centre, a change of scenery that brought a new level of energy to the fan base.
“The move from the Maple Leaf Gardens to the Air Canada Centre, I think there was a whole vibe for the city,” Cross said. “They were excited about the team and about the guys we picked up—Gary Roberts and Alexander Mogilny, Shayne Corson, Darcy Tucker—to boost our already pretty strong team.”
Moving out of the building that the Leafs had played in since 1931 meant that some traditions and history would be replaced by the new facility, a juxtaposition that Cross was able to experience when the team practiced at the old arena.
“We would practice back in Maple Leaf Gardens so you could see the change of what the Leafs were before and what they are now,” Cross said. “The ACC, it’s spectacular. So I think the fans were really excited about that. Obviously the nostalgia of the Maple Leaf Gardens wasn’t there anymore, but I think, it being such a spectacular building, I think the fans quickly forgot about it.”