By: Lanny Stewart
To begin this feature story, let’s rewind the clock back to the latter parts of the Virden Oil Capitals’ 2015-2016 season.
The Oil Caps, bitten by the injury bug, needed a boost on defence so they decided to call up Virden’s own Tristen Cross from the midget AAA Southwest Cougars to help fill the void.
Who was his partner on defence for the last handful of regular season contests and for the first round of the playoffs against the Winnipeg Blues that season? None other than Zach Whitecloud, who earlier this year, inked an entry-level deal with the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
That’s not a bad way for a rookie to get his first taste of MJHL playoff hockey.
“When I first was paired with him (Whitecloud), I remember being so scared to make mistakes and a guy like that – a guy who I looked up to then – he really was very helpful to me and was a role model of sorts,” said Cross, who is slated to play his overage year in junior A next season with the Oil Caps. “If I made a mistake, he was more of a shoulder to lean on. He would even take responsibility for things that I did wrong on the ice and that just goes to show the leadership he had. He made me a better player playing with him.”
Whitecloud says, at the time, he was excited to play alongside Cross and believes after a few practices together, their styles of play meshed well.
“He understood my job and I understood his, and he was always a communicative guy on the ice, so it made the defensive zone easier as a two-man unit,” Whitecloud recalled. “Unfortunately, we lost a few of our top six D-men for that series, so Tristen stepped up and logged big minutes and I think it was huge for his development.”
That development in Cross’ overall game continued to evolve and after a respectable 2016-2017 campaign, he really broke out this past season. He scored nine goals and 38 points in 57 regular season games, all the while, playing significant minutes and in key situations on the back-end for his hometown team.
“Tristen really came into his own last year and grew as a player on and off the ice,” said Jamie Hodson, director of business and hockey operations for the Oil Capitals. “He really bought into rounding out his whole game – and not just the offensive side as the year went on. He’s learning to be a consummate professional off the ice too. He keeps in great condition and he works hard at his craft.”
Hodson says Cross will be relied upon as a leader this upcoming season.
“Especially when it comes to working with our younger guys on the back-end,” Hodson added. “Tristen is a quiet leader and we expect he’ll lead by example with his play and work ethic night in and night out.”
Troy Leslie, head coach and GM of the Oil Caps, agrees that there will be some expectation from a leadership aspect this year for Cross, but at the same time, believes the organization doesn’t want to change the type of player Cross has become – which is an effective puck moving blueliner who just last season, helped the Oil Caps reach the MJHL championship final.
“I think more than anything, Tristen has the ability to be a big part of our offence in terms of getting pucks up the ice quick and joining the rush,” he said. “He’s shown growth that way every year he’s played in the league and I think a lot of our success stems from being able to have our defence involved quite a bit in our offence. He’s going to be a big part of that again this year.”
Looking back on this past season, which saw the Oil Caps come within two wins of lifting the Turnbull Cup, Cross says it was his most memorable season to date playing hockey.
“It was really an eye-opening experience. It was amazing and something you’ll never forget. The crowd, the feeling that you get when you go out onto the ice, it really was incredible.”
He says playing in those critical situations in close games later in the Oil Caps’ playoff run helped him prepare for what’s to come in his hockey career.
“It almost gets you ready for those high-pressured situations,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to go through a situation like that and I know what that high-pressure feeling is like to an extent.”
For Cross, it’s now time for him to do what others, specifically Whitecloud, had done for him in years past.
“It’s time for me to show the young guys what it’s like and try to bring them up to speed on playing junior A hockey,” said Cross, who was an Oil Caps auto-protect prior to the 2013 MJHL Bantam Draft. “Hopefully we can have a similar team to last year. I mean, you never know what can happen.”