This started as a trying year for Tom McCollum, but it just took one chance for him to turn things around.
The 27-year-old netminder, a tenured veteran at this level, inked a two-year deal with the Calgary Flames last summer and headed into his eighth pro season looking to take his solid play over to their affiliate in Stockton.
But things didn’t work out the way he expected, with the rookie prospect duo of David Rittich and Jon Gillies taking a stranglehold of the Heat’s crease, leaving McCollum stuck as the odd-man out.
“Originally I was told that once I signed it was going to be down to two goalies,” said McCollum of his situation with the Calgary organization. “Then from there I never really got a clear answer on what was happening and why.”
For the first five months of the season, McCollum didn’t start a single game for Stockton, with his only action in Heat sweater coming in two periods of relief. But then his chance came knocking.
After a stretch of inconsistent goaltending continued to sink their playoff hopes, the Checkers made a move, getting the Heat to loan them McCollum for the remainder of the season. With veteran netminder Michael Leighton on the shelf due to injury, the starting job was up for grabs, and McCollum seized his chance.
“Sometimes you just get an opportunity,” said Charlotte head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “He wasn’t highly rated in the Flames’ depth chart when they loaned him to us. He saw this as an opportunity to take himself to another level and he certainly did.”
McCollum stepped in and was lights out, going 11-2-1 while starting all but one of the Checkers’ remaining games, and was a driving force behind the team’s improbable run to the postseason.
“He definitely helped the team make the playoffs when he came,” said Leighton of McCollum. “He pretty much was what did that. Hats off to him. I thanked him after the last game and told him we wouldn’t even be in the playoffs without him.”
The strong presence between the pipes seemed to emanate out to the rest of the team, who began to click and rack up the wins.
“It was a great run,” said McCollum. “You could tell it was a great team that had just been struggling a little bit. I think when we look back at it and reflect, it was a pretty special thing we accomplished.”
As McCollum heated up and pulled the team up the standings, Leighton grew closer to returning from his injury until he was finally cleared to play heading into the playoffs. But even with the legendary netminder available, Samuelsson opted to keep his trust in McCollum.
“It was a great feeling,” said McCollum. “I’ve played against Mike for a long time and I have a ton of respect for him. He’s one of the best goalies to ever play in the AHL. To have him come back and be an option for a team and for Ulf to still have confidence in me, it’s a huge confidence boost.”
That run came to an unfortunate end in Game 5 of Charlotte’s opening-round series against the Chicago Wolves, in which the Checkers couldn’t shake off an early deficit and were eliminated. A strange first five minutes of play found the Checkers down 2-0 and caused Samuelsson to do something he hadn’t done all year: pull McCollum, who had played every period in 20 of the previous 21 contests, only missing one due to personal reasons.
“I really don’t think it was fatigue,” said McCollum of the cause behind those two early goals in Game 5. “It was just one of those things where a couple of plays went right for them. I think Ulf was just trying to give the team a spark. Obviously I would have loved to have stayed in, but at the same time I understand what he was trying to do. Unfortunately we just couldn’t get that one extra goal.”
While his tenure with the Checkers didn’t end the way they would have liked, that exit doesn’t undo all that McCollum was able to accomplish.
“He’s a great guy and a great goalie,” said Leighton. “It was great to see him come in and have a great season. I know he had a rough start over in Stockton where he wasn’t playing much, so for him to come over and jump right into it and play a lot and steal games for us was unbelievable.”
With the rush of emotions from the season over, McCollum does admit that his situation was a pretty unique one, jumping on to help a team that he has no affiliation and, with a year still left on his deal with Calgary, no immediate future with.
“Now I guess it’s kind of weird if you think about it but at the time I didn’t really give it too much thought,” said McCollum. “I was just happy to get a chance to play. Fortunately things went really well on the ice and I think it’s going to work out well in the long term.”
From the stalemate he found himself in for most of the year, this stint with the Checkers has McCollum more excited for what his future has to hold.
“It was kind of unfortunate for me but things worked out in the end and I’m just happy that I got to be a part of something special here,” said McCollum. “I think it was definitely great for myself now that Calgary actually got to see me play in some games. Hopefully it will help me out moving forward and if not maybe we’ll see where I end up.”
This summer becomes even more interesting when you add in the Expansion Draft wrinkle, as McCollum is eligible to be exposed by the Flames and selected by Las Vegas.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said McCollum of the expansion. “It’s going to give two guys a fresh start next year. I think long term it’s great because that’s two more NHL jobs so that opens up another slot for me to slide in somewhere.”
Regardless of what the future holds for him, the Checkers owe a lot of their memorable season to McCollum.
“I’m excited for him that he’s probably going to be given a chance now within that organization next year and I’m excited that he came in and did the job for us,” said Samuelsson. “He was really the key factor for us getting into the playoffs.”