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Nov. 19, 2010

by Karen Patterson -

When Thomas McCollum imagined his first season as a professional hockey player, a 10-16-2 record wasn’t necessarily how he hoped it would end. However, a new season brought a new mindset, and Detroit’s first choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft (30th overall) is showing improvement during his sophomore AHL season.
At the beginning the 2010-11 campaign, McCollum would have never predicted that he’d start 11 of the Griffins' first 16 games. However, when the Red Wings recalled Joey MacDonald on Oct. 28 to fill the back-up role, fate handed McCollum the opportunity for much more playing time.

“I didn’t expect to get much playing time this year since Joey is an older, more experienced player,” McCollum said. “I figured we’d split the playing time, but the fact that he got called up to Detroit has really afforded me a good opportunity to get some minutes.”

And the Amherst, N.Y., native has taken advantage of the opening. As of Nov. 16, McCollum was ranked 16th in the AHL with a 2.57 goal against average, while maintaining a 0.896 save percentage.

While a young player may be given a grace period while adjusting to the level of play in the AHL, the Griffins have big expectations for McCollum as time continues.

“Two years ago when he came into the prospects camp, he was terrific,” Griffins head coach Curt Fraser said. “Last year at prospects camp, he looked great again, then he got into the season and stumbled a little bit. Right now he’s ranked 16th in goaltending, which is great, but we expect him to be top five. He’s working towards it and doing a nice job, but there’s still a long way to go.”

McCollum is not relying on talent alone to move up in the AHL rankings. During the off-season he worked closely with Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard to help improve his speed and skating ability.

“I spent a lot of time in the gym working to get stronger and worked on my skating with Jim Bedard, since we only live about 20 minutes apart, which was really helpful,” he shared.

To complement the physical training, McCollum also focused on his mental game. “I just tried to relax a little and take the pressure off of myself, and I feel like that’s helped me play better in games instead of being so tight,” he said.

The combination of physical strength and mental calm has turned McCollum into a more efficient, productive player. He started in nine of 10 games between Oct. 23 and Nov. 14, allowing two or fewer goals in six of those contests.

Even so, the season has not been all smooth sailing. In the Nov. 17 game against the Lake Erie Monsters, McCollum gave up three goals in 16:51 of play. After the rough start, Fraser sent in Jordan Pearce, who was recalled from the Toledo Walleye in MacDonald’s absence, to finish the game. McCollum also struggled against division rival Manitoba in the final meeting of the season between the Moose and Griffins on Nov. 5.

Despite allowing six goals on 22 shots during the match up against Manitoba, Fraser exhibited trust in the young goalie and started him the following night against Chicago. McCollum made 19 saves in the 4-2 win over the Wolves.

“Coach showed a lot of confidence, giving me the chance to start again [against Chicago] and really let me prove myself,” McCollum said. “I think that since then, the team has responded well and we’re playing great hockey.”

One particularly outstanding moment came on Nov. 10 during the annual matinee game, when McCollum earned his first professional shutout against the Milwaukee Admirals. Strangely enough, however, the game ended in a 1-0 shootout loss for the Griffins.

“Every goalie likes to get shutouts,” McCollum stated. “Obviously I was hoping to get one last year, so it was a great feeling when it came. It’s something I look forward to doing again and hopefully I can get a win for it.”

Setting personal goals for himself may be just one more thing McCollum can do to stay motivated as the season gains momentum. Grand Rapids will play 16 of 22 games at home between Nov. 19 and Jan. 5.

“We’re ready to start playing more games,” Fraser commented. “The guys only want to practice so much, and as a coach, I only want to practice so much too.”

As the team plays more, McCollum hopes to continue building on the improvements he’s already made. “It’s important to keep working on my skating; I feel like that’s the biggest key for me moving up to the next level," he said.

Even during the more physical games, McCollum finds ways to keep his focus. “It’s just important for me to keep my cool and relax. If there are a lot of bodies in front of the net, I like to try to peek over guys’ shoulders, since not too many are taller than me,” said the 6-foot-2, 210-lb. netminder. “When I’ve been roughed up, the improvements to my skating have really helped.”

Regardless of how any particular game is going, McCollum seeks to keep building momentum for himself and the defense as the team prepares for the stretch of games ahead. “When you play a lot of games in a short span of time, you really get into a groove. Things just flow and you don’t spend too much time thinking about it. You just go out there and play.”

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