BUFFALO – Tom McCollum’s career was heading down the minor-league journeyman’s path, going nowhere fast.
Three years into professional hockey, the goalie was still shuttling between the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins and the ECHL Toledo Walleye. After his fourth season, the Detroit Red Wings declined to give him a two-way contract.
Instead, Detroit offered McCollum, the 30th pick in 2008, an AHL deal prior to the 2013-14 campaign. The Cambria native wasn’t even eligible for an NHL recall.
That made Sunday’s 46-minute relief outing in Detroit’s 6-4 win against the Sabres, McCollum’s second NHL outing and first win, even sweeter.
“Took a lot of different exits, about 17 different detours, and I think it went the wrong way 10 times, too,” McCollum told reporters after making seven saves Sunday in Detroit. “Fortunately, I found my way on the right path and the team played fantastic in front of me, which really made it a lot easier on myself.”
McCollum, who’s back on a two-way contract, has periodically been recalled to Detroit and dressed for games over the years. Still, he hadn’t played in the NHL since March 30, 2011, when he allowed three goals in a 15-minute relief appearance.
“Definitely since that day that’s all I’ve really wanted, to get in a game and prove that’s not how I can play,” McCollum said last week when Detroit visited Buffalo. “I feel I can play at this level. It wasn’t a very good display of what I can be.”
Sure, it took injuries to Red Wings goalies Jonas Gustavsson and Jimmy Howard and an awful performance by starter Petr Mrazek, but McCollum earned the game action.
“Tommy, his career was going, and then got off the track,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “He seems to have it back now, and good for him. They all get what they earn. It’s just that simple. Your favorites are the guys that play the hardest and do the most.”
Clearly, two strong AHL seasons have put him back in the Red Wings’ plans.
“It’s definitely on the upswing,” McCollum said about his career. “I’ve had two good seasons the last two years, and this year I feel like I’m playing very well, especially lately.”
The 25-year-old was 10-8-3 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .911 save percentage in 21 AHL games prior to his recall. Last season, he posted great numbers – 24-12-4, 2.30 and .922 in 46 contests – in a breakout year.
What has happened? How has McCollum transformed himself from a near-bust into a legitimate prospect again?
McCollum’s mental outlook has changed, helping him handle “adversity a lot better now,” he said.
“When things don’t go my way, I’m doing a much better job of brushing it off,” he said. “I think a lot of it is when things aren’t going my way, I still stick to my game plan and play the same way, knowing that … things will turn around eventually.”
Grand Rapids coach Jeff Blashill has watched McCollum’s mental transformation up close for three seasons. The former NCAA goalie has seen a young veteran feeling “comfortable in his game” and using his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame effectively.
“But also probably bigger than that is Tommy’s developed a strong mental toughness to where he can handle goals going in and it doesn’t bother him at all,” Blashill said by phone Tuesday.
Blashill, who also coached McCollum with Team USA at the 2009 world junior championship, talks “all the time about the two biggest factors of success are inner drive and perseverance.”
“Tommy’s inner drive is great,” he said. “He comes to work every day, he works on his details of his game every day and he’s shown the great perseverance that it takes for guys to be successful.”
In a make-or-break campaign, McCollum’s successful 2013-14 season helped him earn a better contract. Mrazek passed McCollum on the depth chart years ago. But when the Czech returned from a recall last season, McCollum kept pushing him for the Griffins’ No. 1 job.
“I thought his game really flourished, (he) really did a good job of proving he could be an elite goalie in the American League, and if you’re an elite goalie in the American League, you’re knocking on the door of the NHL,” Blashill said.
Naturally, McCollum’s enjoying this recall, his longest ever. He watched the Sabres retire legendary goalie Dominik Hasek’s No. 39 up close nine days ago.
McCollum attended the first game at the First Niagara Center in 1996. The Sabres, coincidentally, played Detroit. He briefly tried to emulate Hasek’s unorthodox style growing up. That didn’t last long, however.
“I think about three practices, then I realized it wasn’t going to work,” McCollum joked.