Forward Thinking David Cotton's constant eye on the future built his hockey career—and it may have saved his mother's life.

It isn’t often that a hockey game at TD Garden is poorly attended. The consolation game of the 2017 Beanpot, however, is about as poorly attended of a game as it gets. The atmosphere in the seats more closely resembles a high school bout in Maine’s upper recesses, or a pond pick-up game, than one played in an NHL arena. But you’d never guess it was one of the college hockey’s most storied programs—Boston College—as well as Northeastern competing for, well, the dignified title of “not last place.”

On that lonely February afternoon, the Huskies and Eagles squared off in the Beanpot consolation game. A few lonely souls dotted the upper deck, and in the grand scheme of college hockey things, the game meant little other than a couple of PairWise points. The atmosphere on the ice, however, was anything but boring. The players on the benches shuffled anxiously watching every play unfold, glancing up at the clock in hopes that a hero could guide their team to victory. That day, the hero was David Cotton.

In a flurry of swinging sticks, sliding skates and screams from both benches, Cotton crammed a shot past the goal line to give the Eagles a late third-period lead over crosstown rival Northeastern. Husky goaltender Ryan Ruck had stood firm the whole game, but Cotton stood firmer. And BC, in the odd position of barely clinging to life in the race for the NCAA Tournament, clinched a crucial victory.

That is, until Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan had something to say about it. In a profanity-laced shouting match with the officiating crew, the play was sent upstairs for review.

The call on the ice was reversed for goaltender interference—no goal. In a questionable call, the stripes determined that a BC forward had crashed into Ruck, putting Cotton in a position to score. The few BC fans still remaining in the building rained down boos, claiming that a Northeastern defender had shoved the forward into Ruck. Even head coach Jerry York disagreed with the call in a rare display of displeasure. Now tied again, Dylan Sikura would convert for the Huskies to net the game-winner not 30 seconds later.

“Yeah,” Cotton said. “That stung.”

It felt as though many years of training and hard work had culminated in a moment of disappointment. In fact, the Eagles finished last in the Beanpot for the first time since 1993 against a Northeastern team that lacked significant firepower. But in reality, it was just another game. Cotton was already looking ahead to the next one, to try and continue BC’s bid for the big dance. In fact, Cotton has always been a forward thinker. The future is his game.

Ever since he started playing hockey, Cotton has thought about his future in the sport. Ice hockey isn’t a common aspiration for budding athletes from Parker, Texas, except maybe for the Cotton family. Following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Cotton began playing roller hockey not long after he learned to walk.

Ice hockey’s popularity exploded in the Dallas area once the Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, so Cotton got on the ice not long after he strapped on toddler-sized roller blades. It was a good thing he started with roller, he said, as it gave him invaluable skills once he swapped his wheels for skates. Roller hockey is slower, non-contact, and focuses heavily on the fancy stickwork that eventually translated to Cotton’s handles on the ice.

It’s easy to tell he developed these skills early. His long strides allow him to fly up the left wing, and, when given open space, he’s got the puck on a string as it dances around the blade of his stick. A filthy wrist shot through traffic seals the deal.

“It was really key for me to start out with a good base and have a solid hockey I.Q.,” he said. “On the ice you have less time and space and people are more aggressive.”

Cotton began his high school career playing for the Colorado Thunderbirds, travelling up to 10 weekends per year to play in tournaments away from home. In this he was again following in the footsteps of his older brother Jason, who played college hockey at Sacred Heart University. Midway through that freshman season at a development camp, Cotton was noticed by recruiters from Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., where Cotton would transfer for his sophomore and junior years. As it turns out, this transfer proved pivotal to Cotton’s eventual commitment to BC. Some of his teammates at Cushing attracted the scouts attention, but Cotton sealed the deal. He committed to BC as a sophomore.

“It gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “When you say Boston College hockey, you associate it with championships.”

After two years in New England, Cotton finished high school while playing in the USHL for the Waterloo Black Hawks, where he caught the eyes of bigger fish in the pond. After development camps and further scouting, Cotton was drafted in the sixth round by the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a moment the forward had been dreaming of since he first laced ‘em up.

“When he was actually selected it was really exciting,” said Cotton’s father, Peter. “He got to go through the whole process, which was amazing.”

But that warm, June day in Sunrise, Fla., was about to get more amazing, albeit in a very different way. Halfway through the draft day proceedings inside the BB&T Center, Cotton’s mother, Peggy, suffered a Brain Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM), a type of bleeding that can lead to life threatening complications. She was hours away from death had she not received proper medical attention. In fact, going to the draft probably saved her life.

“If we hadn’t gone to the draft, I would have gone to bed and never woken up,” she said.

Instead, Peggy received immediate medical treatment since it wasn’t far away. She was hospitalized for 40 days and required emergency brain surgery, as well as seven months of rehab to relearn basic functions like reading and speaking. As it turns out, a close family friend of the Cottons, for whom David was named, was a prominent brain surgeon and guided the family through the process. David missed some of Hurricanes camp to stay home with his mom, and has made sure to be around more often, even with his busy schedule. And, fortunately, she has made a full recovery.

“You never know what the future holds,” Cotton’s father, Steve, said.

Cotton inadvertently saved Peggy’s life, as if he knew what the future had in store. Maybe that’s why Cotton is always trying to be two steps ahead.

Cotton’s hunger and drive surfaced once he arrived on the Heights. He led all freshmen at BC in goals, assists, power-play goals, game-winning goals, points, and was one of only six skaters to play in every game for the Eagles in the 2016-17 season. Although he said the struggle to maintain good grades while playing DI hockey was a slap in the face, he took the transition to college hockey in stride, capitalizing when he could and learning when he couldn’t.

“You can’t go half speed. You gotta go full tilt all the time.” David Cotton

L

ate January was one of those times to capitalize.

Two weeks prior to the Beanpot, Notre Dame came to town, looking to knock the Eagles from their then-perch atop Hockey East in what would be the final in-conference Holy War matchup. Inside the frigid, concrete walls of Kelley Rink, Cotton knew that the Irish’s luck had run out. In a now expected fashion, he tallied an assist in the second period, taking the Eagles into the locker room ahead by one going into the third.

That wasn’t enough. After the Fighting Irish came back to take a third-period lead, Cotton fed his second assist of the night to Jesper Mattila, who clapped home the equalizer. Ten minutes later, Cotton strode up the left wing, lightly tossing a delicate saucer pass to then-captain Chris Calnan. As the 7,000 or so in attendance collectively held their breaths, Calnan slotted the puck past the waving glove of veteran Irish goaltender Cal Petersen to take a late third-period lead. Like many great moments in hockey, time slowed briefly for all in attendance, standing as they processed that the Fighting Irish were fighting no more. As the five men on the ice mobbed each other in celebration, the entire stadium erupted so loud it shook Conte Forum down to its foundation. At no point in recent memory had there been such mayhem under the championship banners hanging from the rafters.

The past season is just that, however—the past.

After his rookie campaign, Cotton knew he had to be better. He traveled home to Texas to get faster and stronger, a point he emphasized was a crucial component to his game.

“I learned last year that the speed was just a whole different animal,” he said. “You can’t really play in this league if you don’t have the speed for it.”

Knowing that some of BC’s best players of late were fantastic on account of their speed, Cotton hit the weights and focused on training for that velocity in the offseason, a point not lost on head coach Jerry York.

I think we’re already seeing a big improvement out of David from a physical standpoint,” York said. “He’s leaner, he’s stronger, he had a great summer working out. We expect him to be one of the best players in our league for sure this year.”

If his numbers last season are any indication, the young forward ought to be. But perhaps it’s not his numbers last season or his work over the summer that would give this away. Likely a leading factor in his reputation as a playmaker, Cotton is always one step ahead. In high school, he was focusing on college. In juniors, he was focusing on the NHL. Now, he’s focused on being a monster, both in the gym and on the ice. And not just for today—for tomorrow, for next week, for next year, and for the rest of his career.

It’s the hard work that he’s put in that leads to results like those at Fenway Park in early January. On baseball’s most hallowed grounds, Cotton rocketed a game-winning, power-play goal to seal the win against rival Providence. It was the first of many big games in which Cotton is sure to toss his name on the box score. If the man can hone his game while caring for his ailing mother, the man is a step ahead of the game.

The way you improve on everything is pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and making sure you’re exercising right,” Cotton said. “You can’t go half speed. You gotta go full tilt all the time.”

It looks as though once he gets going in the right direction, full tilt is all Cotton knows. This season at least, that’s something for which he has to look forward.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

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About DJ Recny

DJ is the executive assistant for The Heights. He is from Chapel Hill, NC, and powerlifts in his spare time. He will never stop talking about deadlifting. You can follow him on Twitter @DJRHeights