You don’t need to apologize to Sean Collins if you looked at the 19 remaining forwards on the Capitals’ training camp roster and said to yourself: Who the heck is Sean Collins and why is he still wearing a Caps jersey?
“I don’t mind,” Collins said with a laugh. “I don’t think my name was one of the ones they mentioned as someone who could challenge for a roster spot and that’s fine. I’ve never really been a blue chip prospect. I’ve always flown under the radar.”
That is, until Barry Trotz compares you to Joel Ward, another late bloomer who flew under the radar until the fall of 2008 when Trotz gave him his first real NHL opportunity with the Nashville Predators at the age of 27.
“What I’ve learned with Sean is that he does a lot of things that Joel Ward does along the boards,” Trotz said. “He’s caught our eye.”
Like Ward, Collins, 26, has taken the road less traveled to the NHL. In fact, it’s a road that’s never been traveled.
Signed by the Caps as a free-agent left wing on July 1, Collins, a 6-foot-3, 202-pound native of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, began his playing career with the Waywayseecappo Wolverines of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. Waywayseecappo is a First Nation reserve in rural Manitoba.
“There are people from Manitoba who never heard of them,” Collins said of the Wolverines.
Collins played two seasons in Waywayseecappo and when he recorded 51 goals and 64 assists in 60 games in 2007-08, Brent Brekke, then-assistant coach at Cornell University, invited him to Ithaca, N.Y. for a campus visit.
“The crowd, the campus, everything was beautiful,” Collins recalled. “And obviously, the education there is one of the best in the world, so it was a no brainer to commit there.”
Collins completed his second season in Waywayseecappo and became the first Wolverines player drafted by the NHL when the Columbus Blue Jackets made him their final pick (187th overall) of the 2008 NHL draft.
Three months later he began his collegiate career as a checking-line center on a Cornell team that included Blue Jackets forward Riley Nash and Edmonton Oilers goaltender Ben Scrivens.
It didn’t take long for Collins, a finance major, to fall in love with the agricultural school and the hockey program.
“Coming from the prairies of Saskatchewan, you’re a little bit isolated,” he said. “You’re in Ithaca, New York and you’re walking by waterfalls every day on the way to class and you’re within a few hours of New York City.”
But it was the hockey atmosphere that Collins embraced the most.
“When Colgate came to town, fans threw tubes of toothpaste on the ice,” he recalled. “And when Harvard played us, the fans threw fish at them because they were from Boston Harbor.”
It all started years before, Collins said, when hockey fans from Harvard tied a live chicken to the Cornell goalpost between periods of a game. The next time Harvard visited Cornell, the tradition of fish throwing began – and never stopped.
“They tried to make it illegal for fans to bring fish in, but they’d find a way,” Collins said. “They’d come in the day before and tie fish up in the rafters or hide them under the garbage cans. Whatever they could to get them in.”
On the ice, Collins relished his role as a checking-line center and did not play an offensive role with Cornell until his senior season when he had what he called a “coming out party” with 13 goals and 13 assists in 35 games.
He signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Blue Jackets following his senior year and spent the next three seasons splitting time between the Springfield Falcons of the AHL (45 goals, 68 assists in 203 games) and the Blue Jackets (3 assists in 19 games). When it came time for the Jackets to renew Collins’ contract this summer, they opted to let him go.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Springfield and Columbus,” Collins said. “They gave me my start.
“I just felt like I needed to showcase myself to a different organization and see if a fresh set of eyes would see me differently than an organization that had seen me play seven years at development camps. You get pigeon-holed and I think they saw me only as a call-up guy.”
With two more preseason games remaining on the Caps’ exhibition schedule, Collins said he knows the odds of making the Capitals’ opening-night roster may be stacked against him. But if Trotz is already comparing him to Joel Ward, his goal of impressing a new coaching staff already has been realized.
“I just needed a new opportunity, a new challenge,” he said. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s a pretty cool atmosphere coming into a locker room where the expectation is to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s genuine.
“Maybe some other organizations the expectation is just to make the playoffs and here they hold everybody to a higher standard. It’s a great group of guys and I just hope I can find a role.”
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