Wings’ McCollum takes long road to first NHL victory

On Sunday night, Thomas McCollum got his chance -- unexpectedly, 1,390 days after his first one.

Rick Osentoski

DETROIT — It was not the way he might have envisioned it, but Thomas McCollum will never forget his first NHL victory.

McCollum, 25, was originally the Red Wings’ first-round draft pick (30th overall) in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Since then, it’s been anything but smooth sailing for McCollum.

In the 2009-10 season, McCollum went 10-16-2 with a 3.48 goals-against average and .881 save percentage in 32 games with the Grand Rapids (AHL) Griffins.

In 2010-11, McCollum was 6-12-2 with a 3.33 goals-against average and .879 save percentage in 22 games with the Griffins.

McCollum also spent time with the Toledo (ECHL) Walleye both seasons.

Also during the 2010-11 season, McCollum made his NHL debut on March 30, 2011, replacing Joey MacDonald against the St. Louis Blues.

McCollum allowed three goals on eight shots in the 10-3 loss.

At the time, McCollum wondered if he’d ever get another shot.

"Definitely since that day that’s all I really wanted was to get in another game and just kind of prove that’s not how I can play," McCollum said recently. "I feel like I can play at this level. It wasn’t a very good display of what I can do."

On Sunday night, McCollum got his chance — unexpectedly, 1,390 days after his first one.

Petr Mrazek, the Wings starting goaltender now because of injuries to Jimmy Howard (groin) and Jonas Gustavsson (dislocated shoulder), gave up three goals on seven shots to the Buffalo Sabres.

Although it was more the team’s fault than Mrazek’s, Wings coach Mike Babcock sent McCollum out to replace Mrazek.

The Wings woke up and ended up making a comeback for a 6-4 win, McCollum’s first.

"I’m still trying to figure it out," a smiling McCollum said. "It’s obviously not the way I imagined it would happen, but it’s a great feeling. I’m just happy with the team that turned it around and really turned it around after I got in there."

McCollum made seven saves on eight shots.

"It was good to see he got his first win here," said Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, who led the way with a third-period hat trick. "It’s never easy coming in like that. It was good to see that he made some key saves for us, even when we tied it, then went up one goal, they came out with a lot of chances to tie it and he made some big saves for us."

McCollum, who grew up near Buffalo and watched Dominik Hasek growing up, found it ironic that his first win would come against his hometown team.

"I know a lot of my friends at home probably ain’t too happy with me right now," McCollum said. "But that’s all right, I’ll definitely take it that way."

Although they had no idea that their son would end up playing, McCollum’s parents happened to be at Joe Louis Arena to witness the event.

But there was another family member McCollum planned to call when he left the rink.

"My first phone call is probably going to be to my little sister," McCollum said. "I know she was sitting at home with her dog watching it."

Gustav Nyquist, who scored the first goal in the comeback, has enjoyed watching McCollum’s evolution as a goaltender.

"I think he’s developed a lot down in Grand Rapids," Nyquist said. "I think he’s always been a great goalie. I know in practice, I know him well, I don’t score too often on him. I think the biggest thing for him, what he’s developed is mentally. 

"What I’ve seen over the years, maybe he got a little rattled the first year when he gave up a goal. Now he just puts it behind him and moves on to save the next shot. So I think he’s turned into a real, real good goalie here and it’s great to see him up here."

On the back of McCollum’s goalie mask, there’s an exit sign with "Detroit" on it.

"We’ve always kind of talked about how Grand Rapids is the road to Detroit, so Brad Thompson, who is our equipment manager in Grand Rapids, designed my mask and he decided that this was kind of going to be my next stop," McCollum said. "So he put that on there."

McCollum signed a one-year NHL contract before this season after going 24-12-4-2 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .922 save percentage in 46 games with the Griffins in 2013-14, the best numbers of his career.

It was a far cry from when he had to sign a one-year AHL deal before last season.

"I talked to (my agent) and we both felt that Europe was an option, a route that you go when you feel your NHL opportunities are expired," McCollum said. "We both always felt that I could play in this league and I just needed to stick it out and work hard and find a way."

McCollum is glad things worked out so he could remain with the only organization he’s ever known.

"Fortunately they decided to bring me back and I think hard work and perseverance really paid off," McCollum said. "I can’t thank the people who had faith in me enough for believing in me and sticking with me.

"After this journey, it’s extremely exciting. It definitely make you hungry for more and hopefully I can get another crack at it."