Tom McCollum has kept a positive attitude through ups and downs on the way to becoming the franchise’s career leader in victories.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Goaltender Tom McCollum has earned his place in Griffins history.
Now in his eighth season with the organization, he can proudly stand tall, having collected more regular season victories than any other netminder who has ever played in Grand Rapids.
“It’s a huge honor, especially knowing all the great goalies who have played here,” McCollum said. “When you walk through our locker room and you see all the names on the wall of guys who have gone on to play in the NHL, it’s crazy to think about.
“At the same time, it’s taken a little longer than I would have liked.”
That last statement says everything about McCollum, a friendly, self-effacing goaltender who has spent nearly his entire career proving that the Red Wings didn’t make a mistake when they drafted him in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
He struggled through his first three seasons before finding his footing and becoming a reliable performer. Over the years, he has played alongside Daniel Larsson, Joey MacDonald, Jordan Pearce, Ty Conklin, Petr Mrazek and Jared Coreau, among others. And through it all, he’s become one of the most loved goaltenders in Griffins history.
That McCollum is back in a Griffins uniform this season says a lot about the character of the 28-year-old New York native, who actually parted ways with Detroit a year ago to spread his wings and in the process endured a hurricane-like season that only cemented his amiable reputation.
McCollum had decided to seek greener pastures after it became apparent that the Red Wings wanted to increase Coreau’s workload last season, which in turn would mean less opportunity for McCollum, who wasn’t looking for a reduced role.
“What it boiled down to is the organization wanted to see what Jared could do,” he said. “They wanted to see him play a lot of games, which I totally understood and respected, but I wanted to play a lot, too, so I left on good terms. There was no animosity whatsoever.”
McCollum headed west after signing a professional tryout with the Los Angeles Kings, marking the beginning of an eye-opening journey that would not only change his perspective but would also alter the way he played his position
“I went to LA’s training camp and I didn’t really know anybody, which was very weird because I was so used to knowing everybody in Detroit’s camp,” he recalled. “Training camps are always chaotic anyway, and meeting 80 people in one day and trying to remember everybody was a completely foreign feeling to me.”
McCollum would eventually sign a two-year contract with the Calgary Flames, who assigned him to their AHL affiliate in Stockton. Unfortunately, the Heat already had two young goalies: Jon Gillies, a 23-year-old prospect out of Providence College, and David Rittich, a 24-year-old prospect from the Czech Republic.
As a result, McCollum was restricted to one relief appearance – Nov. 5, 2017, when he allowed only one goal in two periods of work in a 7-3 Stockton win. In the interim, he spent week after week waiting for an opening while Gillies and Rittich shared the goaltending duties.
“Obviously, I wasn’t thrilled with my playing time,” McCollum said. “It was a situation that was completely out of my hands because it wasn’t like I hadn’t played well. I just never was given the chance to get going.”
It became evident that McCollum had been signed for one reason – to occupy the unprotected goaltender spot that the Flames needed to fill for the 2017 NHL expansion draft that was slated for the incoming Vegas Golden Knights.
Facing an impossible situation, McCollum sought the counsel of Stockton goaltending coach Colin Zulianello.
“After a while, I realized what was happening, so I talked to the goalie coach about it and we started putting in even more time than we had been,” he said. “We would go on the ice an hour before practice and work on some technical things. During practice, I would filter in for one of the other two goalies whenever they wanted a little rest. Then I stayed an extra 30-45 minutes after practice to keep working on things.”
It was McCollum’s attempt to stay sharp during weeks of inactivity. He also hoped to make a positive impression in a bid for playing time.
“I was hoping the coach might see that I was working hard and that it might buy me some goodwill if things weren’t going well,” he said. “I knew that at some point I had to get the chance to play somewhere. I didn’t know where or with what team, but I wanted to be ready once I got that opportunity.”
Twice he was sent to Adirondack, Stockton’s ECHL affiliate, to see some limited game action, but mostly he just kept practicing day after day. It allowed him to explore new goalie techniques.
He experimented with post integration techniques, learning how to handle plays when the puck is behind the net or when the opposition is driving the net at a dead angle from the goal line – awkward plays for a goaltender who wants to seal off the goal and still maintain his balance.
He tried the VH (Vertical-Horizontal) technique, where one leg is upright against the post and the other leg is down on the ice. He tried the RVH technique, popularized by Jonathan Quick, which is the reverse of the VH and makes pivoting a little easier.
“The fortunate part is I had a ton of time to practice and drill the techniques into my head so that they became second nature,” he said. “The only thing I worried about was that it’s one thing to do something in practice and another to actually do it in a game.”
His sessions with the goaltending coach were not all technical in nature.
“The drills we did definitely helped keep my game sharp,” he said. “But mentally, he taught me things about managing my emotions that I was able to integrate into my game, things that I think will help me become more successful.”
McCollum finally got the call that he had been waiting for last March, when he learned that he was being loaned to the Charlotte Checkers. In his first AHL game in four months, he faced a barrage of 50 shots by the Manitoba Moose.
He couldn’t have been happier.
“It was my dream opportunity,” said McCollum, who stopped all but one shot in a 4-1 victory. “The Checkers were looking for someone to play a lot of games. Fortunately, I played well and then we got on a roll.”
McCollum helped rally the Checkers to a playoff spot by posting a 11-2-4 record on the strength of a 2.10 goals against average with a .926 save percentage. “Everyone fed off the confidence that we had as a team,” he said. “It helped that I had so much faith in the guys playing in front of me. They made the games easier to play and we all just had fun.”
At the end of the season, McCollum made it clear that he wasn’t interested in going back to Stockton.
“I don’t know if I could have handled it for another year without freaking out,” he said. “The Flames told me that they were willing to trade me, but they had to hold onto me through the expansion draft.”
McCollum was just as surprised as everybody else when he learned that the Red Wings had re-acquired him in a trade for a conditional seventh-round draft pick in 2018.
“I had sent a text to (Griffins defenseman) Brian Lashoff a couple of weeks earlier, joking that he had a lifetime contract with the organization, which is funny because I had heard the same thing after being here for a long time. Two weeks later, I got the phone call that I had been traded back to the organization.”
McCollum was thrilled.
“I was excited. It honestly felt like I had never left. If anything, it felt like a really long summer,” he said. “Most of my adult life has been spent in Grand Rapids and I’ve made a lot of great friends and connections here. This city definitely has a place in my heart, so I was glad to come back.
“Everyone you talk to will tell you that this organization is first-class and that they treat people extremely well. My situation is just another case that shows that.”
After what he experienced last season, McCollum came into this year with not only new techniques but also new optimism.
“It’s like the Yogi Berra quote: ‘Ninety percent of the game is half mental.’ A lot of it is how well you handle situations, how quickly you can bounce back from a bad goal. Hopefully you can brush things off.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve had to learn things the hard way,” he continued. “When things start going bad, you start pressing and trying too hard to the point that you’re not able to play the way you should. It’s something you can’t really teach. You have to find your own way through it.”
McCollum struggled with consistency for the first couple of months this season but seemed to find himself just before the New Year, which curiously coincides with the good deed that McCollum performed for a fellow hockey player that got him national attention.
Milwaukee Admirals winger Pierre-Cedric Labrie would have missed the birth of his first child if not for the kindness of McCollum, who loaned his truck to his opponent so Labrie could drive back from Grand Rapids, where his team was scheduled to play the next day.
“I was sitting on our bus coming back from Cleveland, when I got a text from (former Griffins teammate) Mark Zengerle, asking for a favor,” McCollum recalled. “I thought he needed tickets or something like that. But he told me that PC’s wife was in labor and there were no flights until the morning. They were looking for a car to borrow, so I had my girlfriend drive my truck to their hotel.”
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” he continued. “I was just fortunate to be in a position where I could help. I ended up getting the recognition, but there were 25 other guys on that bus who would have done the same thing. I just happened to be the one who got the call.”
Labrie drove McCollum’s Ford F-150 through the middle of the night, straining to keep his focus as he steered his way through a snowstorm. He got to the hospital in Milwaukee with 40 minutes to spare, making it just in time to see the birth of a son, Lionel.
McCollum and Labrie had never met before – not officially. As a member of the Rockford IceHogs, Labrie had once punched McCollum in the head. “I had to laugh. Of course, it would be him,” McCollum chuckled. “It was no big deal – it just goes to show the tightness of the hockey community. We battle on the ice but at the end of the day, we’re one big family.”
A couple of weeks later, McCollum learned that the baby was actually the first grandchild of Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, whose daughter, Jana Pieuze-Roy, is the mother.
“I thought that was actually really cool because he was a goalie I grew up watching and he was obviously one of the best of all-time,” McCollum said. “It was just another wrinkle to the story that made it fun for me.”
For McCollum, having fun is what playing hockey is all about.
“If I had to pick one thing that I’ve improved since I came to Grand Rapids, it’s that I’ve gotten so much better at dealing with what I can and can’t control,” he said. “I try to do my best with those things I can control and I’ve learned to accept the things that I can’t.
“It helps that I’ve been here long enough that I know that I can play in this league. Obviously I’m not happy when those bad games happen, but they don’t bother me like they once did when I was younger. At the end of the day, you’re playing hockey and you’re having fun.”
That he’s now back in Grand Rapids makes it even better.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed myself here. Now that I’ve been in other organizations, I’ve seen how respected Grand Rapids is from the outside. It’s a tremendous honor to be a part of the team history of a franchise that is so well-respected.”