Brian Ross spent more than 30 years as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. He lived each and every year, month, day and minute of that time grateful for the opportunity he’d been given and loyal not only to those who made the journey possible, but those who shared it with him along the way.
It was that way for Ross from the minute his relationship with the Oilers began, way back when Glen Sather hired him to work in the team’s retail store, and it never wavered no matter what his job description was – taking rubber as a practice goaltender, working as a video coach or in player development. You didn’t need to be around Ross very long to understand that. In the rink and on the road, his smile, usually accompanied by a fist-bump, told you so.
It stayed that way until last Monday, when Ross passed away at age 54 after a years-long battle with cancer. I can’t possibly relate to you how the Oilers felt about Ross as well as Jim Matheson did Tuesday, but I was reminded once again of how important the team was to Brian, what kind of man he was, when I visited him a week before he passed and saw his Oilers’ No. 29 jersey with “Rossco” on the back hanging at the foot of his bed. I have nothing but good memories of Brian, and how he ended up with that jersey is one of the most vivid.
NEVER A BAD DAY
If Brian ever had a bad day, I never saw it during the years I spent covering the Oilers. “Good morning.” Fist-bump. “How’s it going today?” Fist-bump. “Big game tonight.” Fist-bump. What you could count on with Brian was that he’d be at the rink earlier than you and he’d be happy about being there, no matter what job he was tackling that particular day. He was clockwork.
As a practice goaltender, Brian would pull on the pads and take the crease whenever the need arose. You’d cringe watching him get lit up and take some serious rubber, knowing that last shot was going to leave a mark. It did. Brian would bounce up, shake it off and stand in for more. We’d razz him. At the end of practice Brian would peel off his sweaty gear and my guess is his face hurt from smiling more than any of the bruises did.
As a video coach on Craig MacTavish’s staff, Brian would spend hours and hours going over footage and editing clips. On the road, Brian would have his post-game editing done by the time we were wheels up on the way to the next city and he’d be handing out laptops to the rest of the coaching staff. Brian hustled. He got it done. He always got it done. During warm-ups, Brian used to come out to the bench and watch when time allowed. He’d take his place alongside fellow coaches Charlie Huddy, Kelly Buchberger and Billy Moores. Crisp suit, sharp tie. Big smile.
Brian did what he did without seeking attention or credit, but one night at the United Centre in Chicago, March 30, 2003, before a game with the Blackhawks, he got pushed into the spotlight. When backup Jussi Markkanen took ill, MacTavish told Brian he’d have to dress behind starter Tommy Salo while the Oilers scrambled to get Ty Conklin into town from the minors. That’s when equipment man Barrie Stafford went to work. Stafford grabbed a Kari Haakana jersey, No. 29, cut up a bunch of namebars and sewed together a “Rossco” namebar.
Out Brian went for warm-up with his teammates. You could see the smile on his face from the bench across the rink. He stretched and had a long chat and a laugh with Chicago backup Steve Passmore along the boards at centre ice. He took some shots. He looked up into the crowd as people filed into the building, taking everything in. Rossco never got a sniff that night and Tommy gave up four goals in a 4-4 tie, but it didn’t matter. Brian had experienced a night he’d never forget. What a kick in the ass that was. Everybody was happy for him.
It’s been 15 years since that night. Life takes us all in different directions over time. Mine took a turn in 2007 when my time writing the Oilers beat for the dailies ended. You try to stay in touch. You see guys around from time to time. Brian, or course, stayed right where he always was, with the Oilers, even when his job description changed. After Brian was diagnosed with cancer, we’d message each other. “I’ve got some wristbands for you, pal.” Brian swore he’d fight it and he did for more than two years. But it turned. I found out last week time was short.
ONCE AN OILER . . .
That No. 29 jersey was hanging in Brian’s room when I walked in last week. “There it is,” I said. Brian nodded and smiled. We talked about the previous day and how, as Matty wrote, there had been a gathering of friends and family for him. Scotch. A cigar. How he took a ride in Lyle Best’s Lamborghini. Brian talked about how so many members of the Oilers’ organization, like MacTavish and Kevin Lowe, Sather and Stafford, on and on, had rallied around him and his family. Brian said he felt “lucky.”
What do you say to that? What can you possibly say? I’m so grateful to have known Brian and have been better for it. When it was time to go, I told him that, and said I’d see him down the road, as we shook hands. As I was leaving, he said, “Hey, pal,” and I turned around. Fist-bump.