The Man of the Moment David Cotton has always played well in the biggest moments, but in 2018-19 he took his whole game to another level.

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t’s the second period of the second game of Boston College men’s hockey’s 2018-19 campaign—a non-conference affair against Wisconsin in Madison—and the Eagles trail, 4-1. Having lost 3-0 to the Badgers the night before, a comeback looks unlikely, and BC fans could be forgiven for turning their heads elsewhere.

Had they, though, they would have missed a wildly entertaining ending to a game that ended up meaning much more than a simple non-conference game in the middle of October should.

With four and a half minutes left in the frame and the Eagles on the power play, a loose puck fell to David Cotton, and the forward snapped a shot under Wisconsin goaltender Jack Berry’s arm to cut the deficit to 4-2.

Two minutes later, Jacob Tortora drove down the right wing with the puck, before centering to Cotton, who was crashing the net. Once again, the junior was in the right place at the right time, tipping the puck with a skate past Berry to draw BC even closer.  

The Eagles would tie the game in the waning moments of the middle period, and Cotton went on to capture his first career hat trick late in the third period, slamming a backhander high into the net, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. The Badgers escaped with a 7-5 victory.

The loss may have sent BC home staring at an 0-2 start to the season—a poor beginning to the year that they never quite recovered from—but it did give Cotton something incredibly valuable: a healthy dose of confidence.

“Once I got off to a hot start, I was riding a confidence high,” he said. “And that confidence kind of took wind and just kind of kept going.”

Keep going it did. The junior never stopped banging in goals for the Eagles. He finished with 23 on the season, averaged 0.59 goals per game—fourth-best in the NCAA—and led BC with 36 points. That stellar campaign is reason enough for him to be named The Heights Male Athlete of the Year.

“Once I got off to a hot start, I was riding a confidence high. And that confidence kind of took wind and just kind of kept going.” David Cotton

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ne of the first things you’ll notice about Cotton on the ice is his height. The junior stands 6-foot-3, a full two inches taller than the average NHL player. It’s a frame that’s just as suited to the basketball court or the football field as it is to the rink. His measurables also allow the forward to be extra effective in one of the most significant regions of the ice—right in front of the opponent’s net. It’s a place where Cotton has made a home for himself, game after game, battling for rebounds or fighting for space to try and deflect a wayward shot into the net, showing off a startling desire to win the puck.

Additionally, it’s an area where you have to be in the right place at the right time to be successful, and while some might attribute that to luck, the junior believes it’s absolutely about more than that.

“A lot of it is about hockey IQ and [being] reactionary,” he said. “At that point you kind of rely more on instinct.”

Of course, Cotton is much more than just a big body on the ice. He flies around the rink with agility and quickness, has excellent skills with the puck on his stick, and is always looking for the right killer pass. In fact, his 13 assists were third-most on the team this season. Cotton even hustles back into the defensive zone, blocking shots and starting breakouts into the offensive zone with aplomb. In short, he can do it all, and that’s something Eagles longtime head coach Jerry York is quick to point out when asked about his strengths.

“His skating allows him to play a 200-foot game now,” York said.

Of course, those puck skills and play-making ability go all the way back to his days as a kid playing in his hometown of Parker, Texas.  

“He’s never changed his game, even when he was little,” his mother Peggy recalled. “He’s always been the most unselfish player. It’s just his DNA. He just sees the ice, he makes plays.”

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hen one thinks of meccas of hockey talent, places like New England or Toronto come to mind. Parker, where Cotton hails from, certainly won’t make the top of anyone’s list. But after the Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999, hockey began growing in popularity and Cotton and his two older brothers, Ryan and Jason, all decided to give it a try. First it was roller hockey—where the forward says he began to develop the stickwork skills that appear on the ice today—but eventually the three siblings all moved to the ice.

From a young age, his hockey IQ and skills were apparent. Even when the three siblings were playing roller hockey, Cotton played with Jason—who is two years his elder—meaning that he was competing against players bigger and stronger than him.

But the age difference didn’t seem to hurt one bit. David always fit right in with the older players, using his excellent stick and knowledge of the game to stand out. According to Peggy, he—along with his brother Jason, who played college hockey at Northeastern and now plays for Sacred Heart—were always the MVP or the high scorers on their teams, and never seemed out of place, even in the most important games.

She recalls one particularly striking example of his excellent play that came when he was eight years old (and playing with 10 year-olds). Cotton’s youth club team, the Alliance, had made it to the final of a tournament but trailed by one goal with just five minutes left in the game. It was then that he decided to take matters into his own hands. A loose puck trickled to the boards, and Cotton beat his defender to it, before turning and firing a centering pass to a teammate, who buried the chance. Once more in those final moments, the same thing happened. Cotton would win a battle on the boards, before passing to that same center for a goal, helping complete an improbable comeback. 

“Everybody was just like, what just happened?” Peggy said.

That dominance at the youth level translated to Cotton being able to begin his high school career with the Colorado Thunderbirds, one of the state’s top AAA junior hockey programs, before transferring to Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Mass., for his sophomore season.

It was at Cushing that the tall forward and his stick skills were first noticed by York and his staff. He knew he liked the feel of Boston, and had his pick of the hockey schools in the city, but BC—with its more secluded campus and excellent academics—seemed like a good fit to Cotton and he committed at the end of his sophomore year of high school.

After finishing out his senior season playing for the Waterloo Blackhawks of the USHL, Cotton arrived on campus, joining an Eagles squad that had just made it to the Frozen Four before narrowly falling to Quinnipiac in the national semifinals. It didn’t take long for him to start flashing the same aptitude for the big moment he had displayed when he was younger.

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n just his second career game, playing on the road against a perennial NCAA powerhouse in Denver that at the time was ranked No. 3 in the country, Cotton displayed what has become one of his trademarks: physicality in the crease . He latched onto a loose puck in the slot with a defender on his back, before shoving a shot into the back of the net for the game-winning goal in a 3-1 victory.

A couple months later, against Providence at Fenway Park, BC was knotted at one late in the third period with its Hockey East rival. Cotton drove to the net with the Eagles on the power play, receiving a centering pass from J.D. Dudek and lasering a game winner past Friars netminder Hayden Hawkey with just over three minutes to play.

When asked what the secret is to his success in those moments, the answer, for Cotton, is a simple one, and the same one he gives when asked why he’s so successful in front of the net: You just have to want the puck more.

That desire certainly manifested itself in a big way in 2018-19. In nearly every single tournament or postseason game BC played in, the senior found his way onto the scoresheet.

First it was the Beanpot final, where Cotton helped try to jumpstart a third-period comeback against Northeastern. With the Eagles trailing 3-0 in the final frame, the forward received a pass from Oliver Wahlstrom just above the crease, before chipping the puck over the right pad of Cayden Primeau to get BC on the scoresheet. Seven minutes later, Cotton raced to win a puck along the end-line boards. In a manner reminiscent of his youth hockey play, he somehow emerged with possession, before spinning and finding a wide-open Dudek for an easy tap-in.

Then, in the Hockey East quarterfinals against Providence, Cotton notched a goal and an assist, helping the Eagles stave off elimination with a 4-3 win against the Friars in the second game of the three-game series.

And lastly, it was the Hockey East semifinal and final at T.D. Garden against a pair of in-state rivals: Massachusetts and Northeastern. In the semifinal against the then-No. 2 Minutemen, with just 12 seconds remaining in the first period, Cotton slipped a puck past UMass goaltender Filip Lindberg for the opening goal, sparking a 3-0 BC win that put the Eagles within one game of an NCAA Tournament bid.

The next evening, in the final, with the Eagles once again down 3-0 to the Huskies—but on the power play—Cotton used his big frame to screen the Northeastern net. The screen put him in a perfect position to corral a rebound off a Logan Hutsko shot just above the end line and shuffle a no-look pass over to Oliver Wahlstrom. The freshman buried a close-range one-timer to get BC on the board.

Ninety seconds later, it was Cotton’s turn to score with the Eagles a man up. Similar to the first goal, the forward found the puck in the crease before somehow muscling it over the line amidst a crowd of Huskies defenders to draw BC within one goal.

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nfortunately, despite Cotton’s best efforts, his production wasn’t enough to get the Eagles the Beanpot trophy or an NCAA Tournament berth. In both finals, BC came up just short against the Huskies, meaning that Cotton still hasn’t tasted success in the Beanpot, nor the biggest stage of all in college hockey.

What’s more, the Eagles simply haven’t been the same team they were in the earlier years of this decade. Since Cotton arrived on campus, BC has compiled a record of 55-51-10, and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament. In the three years prior to that? The Eagles were 77-30-12, made three national tournaments and one Frozen Four, and won the Beanpot twice.

Go back a little further, and the success increases. BC began the decade by lifting the national championship trophy in 2009-10, and added another in 2011-12. The Eagles also won three straight Hockey East Tournaments from 2009-10 to 2011-12. Essentially, postseason success was expected for BC just a few years ago. But since Cotton’s class arrived on campus, there’s been none of that to speak of.  

It’s something that stings quite a bit for Cotton, who is famously competitive.

When he was younger, and still playing roller hockey, he went to compete at a national tournament. And in keeping with his prowess on skates, Cotton played excellently, scoring seven goals in an elimination game. It wasn’t enough though. His team lost, 8-7, (yes, he scored every single one of his team’s goals). Peggy remembers going up to Cotton after the game and congratulating him on his excellent play, only to find out that’s not what he wanted.

“He was just looking at me like, ‘are you kidding me? I’m so mad,’” she recalled. “He just wants to win.”

“I want to take this program that’s kind of been in a lull the past couple years and I want to be one of the guys to bring us out of it. I want to compete and I want to win those trophies."
David Cotton

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he stakes aren’t quite the same now, and Cotton can’t score seven times a game, but for him the end goal is the same: to win, and help BC regain the winning tradition established in the early years of this decade.

It was that desire that brought Cotton back for his senior season. He likely could have capitalized on his breakout campaign and gone to play for the Carolina Hurricanes, who picked him in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft back in 2015, but instead chose to return to BC for his final year on the Heights and was named team captain for the 2019-20 campaign.

York recalls sitting down with Cotton in the aftermath of BC’s Hockey East final loss to Northeastern and hearing the reasoning behind Cotton’s decision. The forward told him that he had unfinished business with the Eagles.

Cotton knew that BC had won two regular season championships since he arrived on campus, but the Eagles had won none of the major tournaments: the Beanpot, the Hockey East Championship, or the national championships.

It’s also something more than that. Cotton sees the chance to also write his name in the BC history books as a driving force behind the team’s turnaround.

“I want to take this program that’s kind of been in a lull the past couple years and I want to be one of the guys to bring us out of it,” he said. “I want to compete and I want to win those trophies.”

York has a similar read on what Cotton wants, and it’s music to the ears of the five-time national championship-winning coach.

“He’s proud to be at BC, and he wants to make sure he pushes the whole team forward next year.”  

Certainly, Cotton has his work cut out for him. After all, the Eagles finished seventh in Hockey East last season, and had a losing record for the first time since 1996-97. But that probably won’t faze him. After all, as he’s shown all his life, he’s never been afraid of the big moment.

Featured Image by Ikram Ali / Heights Editor

Images by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Senior Staff, Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff, Kayla Brandt / Heights Staff

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About Peter Kim