BY PAM SHEBEST
When the Kalamazoo Wings signed forward Chris Collins this year, coach Nick Bootland pegged the rookie as a second-line center.
The coach hoped to get at least 50 points out of the player from Calgary.
To say that Collins exceeded all expectations is an understatement.
The personable forward is seventh overall in ECHL scoring with 28 goals and 34 assists for 62 points in just 53 games.
His stats lead all rookies and he is tops in the league with six shorthanded tallies and 10 shorthanded points.
Collins does not hesitate to test goaltenders, launching a rookie-high 197 shots so far this season.
He leads the K-Wings in scoring, a point ahead of Tanner Sorenson.
The rookie also has some patented moves on the power play, prompting Bootland to note: “A lot of times we joke around at the power-play breakouts, ‘Let’s just call it “The Collins,” give the puck to Collins and let him enter the zone.’
“His skating at this level is a comparison to (Edmonton’s Connor) McDavid in the National Hockey League, to be honest.”
Not bad for a guy who has played no more than 28 college games in each of the last five years.
Collins opted to take advantage of Canada’s five-year college eligibility because “I was having fun,” he said. “I used all five and came out of it older than most of the guys coming from the U.S. but I enjoyed my five years.”
The forward wasted no time making an impact as a K-Wing.
He scored his first pro goal just 13:03 into the team’s season opener, an 8-4 loss at Indy.
His second came just 15 seconds into the team’s second game, a 2-1 win at home over Fort Wayne.
“It definitely made me feel more comfortable,” Collins said of the goals. “In the preseason I had a couple empty net chances in front of the net where I missed.
“It was kind of in the back of my head, so to get that early was a relief for me because I knew it could get in your head.”
As a first-year pro, Collins faced an adjustment in lifestyle that is typical of most rookies: too much free time.
“In university, it’s class in the morning or workout, then practice then go home and study,” the 26-year-old said. “My days were full.
“So when I came here, for the first month I was lost on what to do with my extra time. We found some things to do around town.
“When I’m home, I like to do puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, just to try to keep a little bit sharp. I’ve tried to fill my time wisely, but at the end of the day I end up in front of the TV.”Although Collins played 50-plus games in junior hockey in the Western Hockey League, he had to make a major adjustment after his much fewer games per year in college.
“When you’re younger, your body bounces back quicker,” he said. “I think when I hit 25, I had to stretch a little bit longer and I’m sure as I get older, it will take even more time to get warmed up.”
K-Wings captain Ben Wilson, who is also from Calgary, was instrumental in getting Collins to Kalamazoo.
“Willy knew that Josh Pitt wasn’t coming back and he felt like Chris could come in and be our second-line center right away,” Bootland said. “As soon as we heard that, we started pursuing him.
“We made some phone calls to his coach, talked to some other people around the league where he had played a few years at the Canadian university. We liked what we were hearing.”
In February, Collins signed a Professional Tryout Agreement with the AHL Manitoba Moose, giving him a taste of the level above the ECHL.
“It’s a bit of an adjustment whenever you go to a new team,” he said. “You’ve got to learn 30 new names and you’re living in a new spot.
“I went from being here where the weather’s a bit more mild to where I had to have a parka on and every bit of my body was covered.
“And living out of a hotel for four weeks is a bit of an adjustment, too. But it was kind of a perfect timing in the season, right in the middle or just at the second half.”
Bootland said he is happy Collins had the opportunity to play with the Moose, where he had two goals in nine games.
“He was hungry for that,” Bootland said. “You can see that he wants to get better every day. The parts of his game to play at the next level are winning faceoffs and his defensive awareness, especially one-on-one play defensively.
“If he can improve in that category, he can play in the American Hockey League, no problem.”
Bootland said Collins’ speed sets him apart from many other players.
“He doesn’t even look like he’s fast, that’s the funny part,” the coach said. “It’s kind of weird. You see him and then he just literally blows by defenseman and carries the puck through the neutral zone.”
Athleticism is in Collins’ genes.
His parents, Jim and Trish Collins, played university basketball in Canada, his brother, Sean, played hockey and his sister, Steph, played university soccer.
“My parents were running all over town taking us to different sports so I’m really thankful for the time and patience they put in with us playing sports,” he said.
Looking at a future after hockey, Collins said he has two scenarios in mind: fantasy and reality.
“I think being a writer on a television show would be my fantasy career,” he said. “But realistically, I’ve from Calgary where there’s big oil and gas, so I think I would probably work in corporate job there, maybe using my economics degree — or not.”