Now in his fourth season with the Griffins, the Red Wings’ former first-round draft pick is confident he’s heading in the right direction.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Tom McCollum came to Grand Rapids with high expectations, having been selected in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft by the Detroit Red Wings.
Seen as a potential successor in goal to Chris Osgood, McCollum struggled during his first three years, splitting each season between the Griffins and the Toledo Walleye in the ECHL.
While some critics were ready to write off the New York state native as a bust, the Red Wings kept working with their prized prospect, hoping for a replay of Jimmy Howard, their former second-round pick who blossomed after four seasons in Grand Rapids.
McCollum knows the story all too well.
“I’ve heard the Howie story a million times,” he said with only slight exaggeration. “I heard it numerous times in conversation with Ken Holland, Jim Nill, Coach (Mike) Babcock, Jimmy Bedard and just about everybody in the organization.”
He didn’t mind.
“It was refreshing to hear,” he admits. “I think it helped put my first couple of years, when things weren’t going so well, in perspective.”
After winning five of his first seven starts as a pro in 2009-10, McCollum spent three years searching for the consistency that the Red Wings had hoped he would provide when they selected him with the 30th overall pick.
McCollum seems to have finally found his groove. This season he is allowing nearly a goal less per game and his save percentage has never been better.
“It’s definitely taken longer than I wanted, but I couldn’t be happier,” McCollum said after a recent practice. “I feel a lot more comfortable and confident in the net.”
He’s the first to admit that his transition to the professional ranks did not go as smoothly as he might have liked.
“At various points I’ve definitely gotten frustrated, mostly with myself because I knew I wasn’t playing as well as I could,” he said. “Nobody puts higher expectations on me than I do.”
If anything, he might have been guilty of pressing too much.
“I know it can be a positive, but at times, I think I turned it into a negative,” he said. “I’m harder on myself than anybody, and I think it’s been my downfall at times.”
And yet, McCollum always stayed positive. Teammates often saw him smiling, even when his insides were churning with frustration.
“The biggest thing that helped me is that I never doubted whether or not I could play,” he said. “I knew I could play at this level and play extremely well. It was just a matter of finding the right mindset.”
For several summers, McCollum spent countless hours working with Bedard, the Red Wings’ goaltending coach. The two conveniently lived only minutes apart in the Niagara Falls area and, this past summer, worked several hockey schools together.
“I think teaching is one of the best ways to learn,” McCollum said. “You’re teaching kids the fundamentals and how to do things properly, and when you’re teaching the same thing 20 times a day, it works as positive reinforcement for yourself. It helps the kids learn while beating it into your own subconscious.”
McCollum has also benefited from the presence of the retired Osgood, who, with Bedard, is a frequent visitor to the Griffins’ practices and games in his role as the organization’s goaltending development coach.
“They’ve both really helped and made me a much better player,” he said. “They haven’t changed too much, only a few technical things, but the biggest change is my mental approach to the game.”
The unflappable Osgood has shown McCollum the importance of staying calm, cool and collected.
“It’s a huge advantage to have someone with his track record here,” McCollum said. “I’ve really made a conscious effort to learn from him, and you can see how relaxed he is, even now. If he comes in the middle of practice, he might give a suggestion here or there, but then he’ll start talking about something that has nothing to do with hockey. He knows how to keep you relaxed.”
McCollum thinks Osgood’s demeanor has rubbed off on him.
“I feel a lot more relaxed this year,” he said. “My approach now is just to go out and play the best that I can and not worry so much about everything else, just worry about stopping the next shot coming my way.”
Being sent to Toledo also helped remind him why he started playing hockey in the first place.
“Toledo got me back to having fun again,” he said. “It’s a completely different atmosphere down there. With call-ups and two affiliations, you never know your lineup from one night to the next, so it puts the onus on you to play well because you know you’re going to see a ton of shots. You need to play well in order for the team to win.”
The arrival of Red Wings goaltending prospect Petr Mrazek from the Czech Republic this season also gave McCollum a boost by removing some of the pressure to perform.
“Being more relaxed has definitely helped,” he said. “And it’s definitely more enjoyable to come to the rink when you know you’re going to play well every day.”
It didn’t hurt that Mrazek won his first six starts this season.
“We’re both very good goalies and I think we do a great job of pushing each other,” McCollum said. “Petr and I both want to be that No. 1 guy and that leads to us pushing each other, and that’s only going to benefit the team.”
Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek has watched McCollum since he arrived four years ago, and he’s happy that the Wings prospect has finally begun to enjoy the success that others had been predicted.
“They always say it takes a goalie longer to develop than forwards and defensemen,” Paek said. “Tommy has matured tremendously this season, and it’s shown in his game.”
McCollum thinks his improvement has also helped his teammates. “I think it’s made the guys in front of me play better,” he said. “When a team is confident of the guy playing behind them, they make more confident plays and that benefits everyone.”
In the end, it’s all about consistency.
“Consistency is the most important thing for any goalie, to allow the team to have the confidence in you and what they’re going to get out of you each night,” he said.
“You’re going to have your bad days – everybody has those – but you want to limit them to as few as possible. I’ve done a much better job of letting things roll off my back this year. If I give up a bad goal, I find ways to make a good save later in the game to keep it close. If I have a tough game, I try to play as well as I can in my next start.”
Maybe all McCollum needed was time.
“My first couple of years I was trying to make saves, and this year I’m letting the shots come to me. It’s like I’m letting the saves happen. I’m letting my instincts take over instead of pressing and trying to control everything. I’m trying to make plays as they come to me.”
With age and maturity, McCollum has found the right balance.
“My first year here, I was only 19. These things take time. There will always be the exceptions like Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy who are phenomenal from the get-go, but those are two of the greatest goalies of all-time.
“Carey Price, Marc-Andre Fleury and Pekka Rinne have gotten better as they’ve gotten older. Look at Tim Thomas. I don’t know if I could name half of the places that he played before he came back to Boston and turned into a star.
“As much as you don’t want it to take forever, sometimes you have to learn to appreciate the journey. Seeing the same situations over and over, you’re going to get better. I understand that it takes time and hard work; it takes time just to build your confidence.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is that I have to keep believing in myself, keep working hard and doing things the right way. Eventually everything is going to work out.”