Photo and story by Mark Newman
Thomas McCollum grew up in upstate New York, not far from Niagara Falls.
“Where are you from?” is usually a simple question.
If you check various sources to determine the hometown of rookie goaltender Thomas McCollum, you’ll likely find several answers. If you ask him, he’ll tell you Cambria, N.Y.
The Griffins’ netminder grew up in Cambria, which is small enough that its post office is in nearby Sanborn. The hospital in which he was born is in Amherst, but few people know where that is, so it’s easier to say he hails from Niagara Falls, which is only 10 minutes from his home. And if you’re looking for a bigger city, there’s always Buffalo, which is roughly 45 minutes away.
No matter how one maps his youth, McCollum hails from Niagara County, which means that he is more than a little familiar with one of the natural wonders of the world.
“I live close enough that I know all the back roads,” he said. “This summer I walked a lot of the trails near Niagara River and Niagara Falls and it’s pretty good exercise, plus you get to see a lot of really neat things.”
Most people in Cambria (pop. 5,393) appreciate its proximity to one of North America’s best-known landmarks, according to McCollum.
“With something like Niagara Falls, it’s hard not to enjoy the natural beauty of it. Besides, it’s not like we’re right next to it and get annoyed by all the tourists.
“We’re far enough away that we can enjoy it and close enough that it’s something we can tack onto our town. Anytime anyone comes to visit, it’s one of the first places they want to see.”
McCollum got an extra-close look at Niagara Falls when he was about 9 or 10.
“My dad operated the crane that built the big observation tower there and one day while they were building it, they called him because it was so windy they were afraid the crane would blow over,” he recalled. “So I got to go with my dad and sister and we got a real up-close look at the falls.”
Curiously, McCollum has never done either the Maid of the Mist boat ride or Whirlpool jet boat tours. “Hopefully this summer I will take some time and enjoy some of those tourist things,” he said. “My girlfriend did it this past summer and said it was incredible.”
McCollum has been wrapped up in hockey, whether ice or roller, as long as he can remember. He started skating almost as soon as he started walking.
“My aunt bought me my first set of roller blades,” he said. “They were supposed to be for my second birthday, but she was so excited that she gave them to me early. My mom said I could skate better than I could walk.”
He was on ice skates by age 3, attending Niagara Falls Thunder games with his aunt and watching the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres on television with his dad.
“My parents told me that I could say ‘Lou Franceschetti’ with absolutely no problem when I was four years old,” McCollum said, referring to the hard-nosed player who finished his career in Buffalo. “One of my favorite things was to stay up on Saturday nights and watch ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ with my dad.”
His parents, Paul and Shelley, used to regularly drive him to the rink in the town of Wheatfield, less than a 10-minute drive from their home. He started playing as a forward but quickly switched to defense.
“In my second summer league, my coach had me play defense because I was one of the few guys who could skate backwards,” he said. “I loved playing defense, making the easy pass and blocking shots.”
He never really thought about playing in net until the day the goalie on his squirt minor team quit in the middle of a game. The team finished without a netminder, but the next day the coaches asked if anybody would be interested.
“Practically the whole team turned and looked at me,” he said. “I looked at my dad to ask him if I could and he gave me that look like ‘Go ahead’ but I could see the ‘Oh no’ in his eyes.”
McCollum showed considerable promise as a goaltender, enough that he attracted the attention of a scout for the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League.
In Guelph, he played for former NHLer Dave Barr, who impressed his parents upon their first meeting. He signed with the Storm in the fall of 2006 when he was 16.
“We had some guys on the team from Toronto, and they thought it was funny that I talked about how big Guelph was and how there were so many people,” he said. “The older guys gave me the gears about how I was the country kid lost in the city.”
McCollum excelled in net for Guelph, being nominated for OHL Goaltender of the Year as a rookie. During his second season, he continued his excellent play and was named Guelph’s Academic Player of the Year.
“Guelph is about 1-1/2 hours away, so my parents were at every home game, whether I was playing or not,” he said. “They only missed one game in three years, and that was because there was a snowstorm and I told them to stay home.
“My parents have been incredible through everything and they made an effort to come out and see me everywhere, including a lot of road games. It’s always nice to have that support system.
“You’ll always have guys to help pick you up (after a bad game), but your parents always know you best and have a better read on you than anybody. You could talk to my parents and they could probably give you the play-by-play of what’s going on in my mind.”
McCollum said he will be forever grateful that his parents gave him the chance to play.
“They weren’t the type of parents who scream at their kids. They just sat back and as long as I was having fun, they were fine with it. They put in a lot of time and money so I could play, so to see it pay off for me must have been a great feeling for them.”
McCollum was selected in the first round (30th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings, the second goaltender chosen that year and the first from the U.S.
“It was extremely exciting and at the same time, it was a huge relief,” he said. “The first round took over three hours and I was sitting there the whole time, just waiting and hoping someone would call my name. To see Steve Yzerman go up to the podium and hear him say my name was definitely the most incredible feeling I’ve had.
“One of my buddies TiVo’d the draft and you can see that when my name was announced, my mom jumped up so fast that she just missed me with her right hand and almost caught me under the chin.
“The other guys joked that it would have been hilarious if she had knocked me out.”
McCollum was thrilled that he was going to get the chance to hone his skills in the Red Wings organization.
“It’s such a storied franchise,” he said. “To be chosen by an Original Six team made it even more special.”
He knew that getting drafted was only the first step in a long journey to play in the NHL. Unlike some organizations that promote their top prospects as soon as possible, the Red Wings prefer to have their draft picks play at the minor league level until their skills are fully developed.
“They’ve talked to me about that and I’d almost rather have it happen that way,” he said. “There’s no huge rush for me, so obviously when I get there, I’ll be extremely well-prepared.”
McCollum finds motivation in the recent success of the Red Wings’ Jimmy Howard, who spent four seasons in Grand Rapids before landing the goaltending spot in Detroit.
“When you see what Jimmy’s done up there this year, it’s hard to argue with that,” he said. “It’s good for us younger guys to see what happens when you put in your time and work hard.”
McCollum said he hasn’t had too much difficulty adjusting to life in Grand Rapids thus far, even though as a 19-year-old last fall, he became the youngest goalie to ever play for the Griffins.
“My parents taught me how to cook and do my own laundry, so I’m pretty self-sufficient and don’t have to ask for too much help,” he said.
On the ice, things have been a little tougher. “I think I’ve adjusted to the level pretty well, but some of the games have not gone as well as planned,” he said.
“There are speed bumps on every road and you need to learn to play through them. It’s only going to make me better in the long run.”