by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat Archive
A smile. A wave. A handshake. A simple hello. An autograph.
It doesn’t take much for a professional athlete to make a positive, lasting impression on a kid. Grand Rapids Griffins goaltender Tom McCollum is only too glad to oblige young hockey fans because there was a time when he, too, stood in awe of his heroes.
Living in upstate New York, McCollum’s family had a natural affinity for the NHL team in Buffalo, since their hometown of Amherst is the largest and most populous suburb of The Nickel City. When the goaltender thinks of his personal heroes, he tells two stories related to Sabres players, one of which predates his earliest memories.
Brad May was scheduled to sign autographs at a grocery store in Amherst after being selected in the first round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. At the time, McCollum wasn’t even a year old, but his mom and aunt stood in line to get a photo autographed and personalized.
"I grew up with that photo in my room – in fact, the picture’s still there – and I was fortunate enough to play with Brad during my first year in Grand Rapids," McCollum said. "When he was here, I showed him the picture in private to let him know that the little things you do can go a long way."
Years later at one of his minor hockey year-end banquets, McCollum met goaltender Dominik Hasek, who was still building his legend in Buffalo.
"Hasek had a son a couple of years younger than me and he ended up behind us in line to get food," McCollum recalled. "He started talking to my dad and I remember standing there with my mouth open the whole time. He was one of the best players in the world, a true superstar, and yet he took the time to talk to my dad."
Whenever McCollum finds himself in the position to talk to kids, he does his best to reciprocate the kindness.
"I was once that little kid," he said. "I know the impressions those guys made on me and I think it’s only right that I try to do the same. It was a huge deal for me and so now I do my part. Anytime you meet someone, you hope to make their day a little better, or, at the very least, to leave them with a good memory."
Now in his sixth season with the Griffins, McCollum, 25, said he feels it is important to give back.
"I’ve done so much growing up and maturing as a person here that Grand Rapids really feels like my second home," he said. "After everything this city has given to me, I want to put myself in a position to give back and draw attention to various causes."
McCollum admits he never would have imagined that he would feel such affection for a city that he once needed a map to find.
"I definitely didn’t plan on being here this long," he said. "I had been given some indication that if I played well, I might be here only a year or two, but I might have listened to that talk too much and, as a result, put too much pressure on myself."
McCollum struggled during his first three years with the Griffins, allowing just under three-and-a-half goals per game while splitting each season between Grand Rapids and Toledo (ECHL).
"Nobody wishes it hadn’t taken so long for me to get things together more than me, but it’s the path I had to go through," he said. "[Red Wings goaltending coach] Jimmy Bedard kept reminding me the whole time that if it was easy, everybody would do it. I feel very fortunate that Detroit was willing to give me so many opportunities."
McCollum compiled a record of 18-11-2 during the Griffins’ Calder Cup season (2012-13) when he posted a solid 2.63 goals-against average, then went 24-12-4 last season when he improved his GAA to 2.30, the fourth-best figure among AHL goalies.
Still, McCollum feared he might be saying goodbye to his teammates for the final time at the close of last season. Although he was a former first-round draft pick (30th overall) of Detroit, his future in the organization was in doubt.
"At the end of last year, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen," he said. "I knew I had had a good season, but I wasn’t sure where I was going to fit in the grand scheme of the Red Wings’ plans. I really had no idea. I thought things could have gone either way."
He was thankful when Detroit rewarded his efforts to resurrect his career by signing him to a one-year contract for the 2014-15 season.
"I’ve gone from a 19-year-old kid and a year removed from high school to a 25-year-old adult with a much better understanding of life," he said. "I still have a lot to learn, but I think I have a more realistic perspective now."
That perspective has led him to become a more active participant in the Griffins’ community activities. He was named the team’s winner of the IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year award for his outstanding contributions to the Grand Rapids area during the 2013-14 season, and he has even more on his philanthropic plate this season.
"When I first came here, I was pretty quiet," he admits. "I was very shy and wasn’t very comfortable doing stuff. But as you get more comfortable with who you are as a person, it becomes easier and the more you do it, the more comfortable you get.
There’s nothing he enjoys more than being able to put a smile on the face of youth hockey players.
"I love going to their practices and helping out their teams," he said. "Coaches are never sure what to do with me, but I like to circulate among all the players and give them little tips where I can, and when they score, you can see their faces light up."
McCollum hopes to eventually conduct one-day camps for aspiring goaltenders, potentially starting with a clinic in early 2015 for goalies from the Griffins Youth Foundation.
"I can speak from personal experience that there isn’t a ton of instruction for young goalies," he said. "In my case, coaching often consisted of my teammates’ dads hammering pucks at me and telling me to stop them."
His interest in encouraging the younger generation extends to visiting elementary schools and children’s hospitals. McCollum has also teamed with teammate Landon Ferraro to purchase four season tickets for the Boys & Girls Club of Grand Rapids under the banner of the TLC Club (i.e., the Tommy and Lando Care Club).
"If we can visit with kids and make the rest of their day better, that’s something worth doing," he said. "If we can get them to a Griffins game and make their life better for three hours, that’s even better yet."
The Boys & Girls Club provides a safe and positive place for youth through a variety of after-school and summer programs. McCollum and a number of Griffins teammates make frequent visits to the organization.
"We go there to help make their day better, but every time I go, I leave in better spirits than when I came," he said. "When you hang out with them and talk to them, you would never know some of the things these kids have to face. They seem like the happiest people on the planet."
McCollum also enjoys lending a hand at Kids’ Food Basket, the only organization in West Michigan focused solely on childhood hunger.
"They prepare sack suppers for underprivileged kids, and a lot of guys from the team go once or twice a month to pack all these suppers for delivery to schools," McCollum said. "The kids take them home and eat them for dinner."
Through the Griffins’ Charitable Goals program, Carlin O’Brien Batson is donating $1 to Kids’ Food Basket for every save that McCollum or his teammates make this season, as well as $200 for every shutout.
"It provides more motivation for us to do well so we can help an organization that is doing nothing but good," he said. "Every good performance can help somebody else’s life be a little bit better."
McCollum is also hoping to do something with the Michigan Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
"My family does a lot of the MS Walks in Buffalo because my grandmother has MS," he said. "She used to come to games all the time, but it’s tougher for her now with MS, so it’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart."
He also would like to do his part to promote anti-bullying campaigns.
"We hear so much about it happening in schools and it’s so unnecessary," he said, conceding that the cause might seem contradictory for an athlete in a sport that allows fighting. "As you get older, you realize that there is no need to hurt people, and I’d like to draw attention to the problem."
Whether he’s serving beverages at Corks, Pucks & Brews for Easter Seals Michigan or interacting with fans at the Tip-a-Griffin fundraiser or Great Skate Winterfest for the Griffins Youth Foundation, McCollum enjoys doing what he can to brighten the lives of others.
"As you get older, you realize what’s really important in life," he said. "Hockey is important to me, but I realize that it’s just a game. There are plenty of people who are facing much more serious issues in their lives."
His volunteer efforts leave McCollum reinvigorated for another day and other challenges.
"I can go home and sit on my couch or I can go visit kids and make their lives a little better," he said. "As players, we have a ton of free time, so why not try to make good use of it?"
Best of all, McCollum’s positive attitude seems to have helped his play on the ice.
"I’ve spent enough time worrying about what’s going to be, what could be, what should be," he said. "I realize that if I don’t take care of what’s right in front of me, it doesn’t matter what’s down the road.
"I’d like to think if I have another good year, I’ll get another good opportunity next year, but I’m not going to be worrying about it. Right now I’m one of the goalies for the Griffins and that’s my focus.
"If I can’t be in the NHL, there’s no better place to be than Grand Rapids."