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Former Wolverine Sean Collins Reflects On ‘Miracle Run’ To Professional Ranks

It’s been 11 years since Sean Collins dominated the Manitoba Junior Hockey League in a Waywayseecappo Wolverines uniform.

Since that time, Collins spent four years at Cornell University where he earned a degree in applied economics and management while playing for the Big Red men’s hockey team. Following his graduation from University, Collins turned pro and carved out a career in North America between the National Hockey League (NHL) and the American Hockey League (AHL).

Currently, the 30-year-old from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan is a member of HC Sochi in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in Russia, where he will soon spend his third season after signing a new contract last month.

Collins took the road less traveled to get to where he is today and it’s a story that all young hockey players can learn from.

“I was never drafted in the WHL Bantam Draft, I wasn’t very highly touted coming out of midget and I didn’t end up playing AAA until my 17-year-old year,” Collins said from his home in Saskatoon. “Physically, I just wasn’t very developed. I played AAA outside of Saskatoon, I couldn’t make the team in the city so I played in Beardy’s.”

Following his first and only year of Midget AAA in Saskatchewan, Collins had a choice to make that would end up changing his life forever.

“I didn’t have a whole lot of options, my rights in Saskatchewan were with La Ronge up north. I was just open to a lot of different options because I didn’t have my mind made up on anything. I was still playing real competitive baseball at the time and was wondering if I would have any college interest to pursue baseball. Baseball’s always kind of been my passion and I was probably better at baseball in Saskatchewan than I was at hockey.”

“I made a visit out there to Wayway, met some of the billet families and took a bit of a leap of faith. A lot of people were trying to convince me that it wasn’t the right opportunity. Looking back on it now it was kind of a miracle run. Everything kind of took off from there.”

As they say, the rest is history. His first season in Waywayseecappo certainly caught attention from around the league and beyond. During the 2006-07 campaign, Collins played 59 games as a 17-year-old with the Wolverines where he notched 21 goals and 35 assists.

“My first year it was a pretty good one. It was a bit of a challenge leaving home for the first time and living with a new family. But the second half of my first year I played well and then I think just that second year from the start I had really good linemates. Playing with another really good Wolverine, Carter Davis. He ended up playing Division III at St. Scholastica.”

After Collins continued to shine in his second season in Waywayseecappo, the hockey world took notice. As an 18-year-old, Collins scored 51 goals and 64 assists to lead the Wolverines in scoring with 115 points in just 60 games.

It was during a game after the Christmas break that would lead Collins down the path of his incredible hockey journey.

“I was just trying to get a Divison I college scholarship and was pretty focused on that,” Collins explained. “I had some pretty good interest from teams but when Cornell came and saw me play and expressed quite a bit of interest, it was kind of a no-brainer to go there given their academic standards and their hockey history as well.”

“They came and saw me play at the end of January and I remember the date because it was my moms 50th birthday. My parents had made one of their monthly trips from Saskatoon. One of the assistant coaches from Cornell came to the game and saw me play and obviously, he knew I had pretty good numbers at that point. Basically, they talked to my parents and me after the game and they said we want to get you on a fly down next week. They needed to get the application process started, so it was kind of a quick process. Some guys are committing two years in advance and we didn’t have that time so they needed to get everything in motion within the next month.”

“The next weekend I flew down there, went to a game, toured around campus a little bit and they needed a decision by the Monday. So it was pretty quick to get everything taken care of. Everything aligned and everything worked out. I committed on that Monday.”

Shortly after committing to play NCAA Divison I Hockey at Cornell with the Big Red, another moment in Collins hockey career took place that he will never forget. While sitting in the stands in Waywayseecappo during the MJHL’s all-star weekend prospects game, a man approached him.

“I remember sitting in the stands and a guy in a Columbus jacket comes up to me and asked which one of us sitting here is Sean Collins. So, of course, I said it’s me, and he asked to speak with me for a little while. So, he gave me a 45-minute psychological test to fill out and we talked a little bit. He just kind of said he was their regional scout in the prairies and told me he has been following me throughout the season. I did the test and never really heard anything back for a while. That was the first time that the NHL was on the radar for me.”

“I never really spoke with him again until two weeks before the NHL Draft that summer. He called and just checked in and said we followed your progress and came to a couple of playoff games and we really liked what we saw. I actually had some interest from Montreal too. One of their scouts flew to Saskatoon and came over to my place and met the family. So I had no idea what was going to happen.”

On Saturday, June 21, 2008, while Collins was at his family home in Saskatoon, he received a call from the Columbus Blue Jackets notifying him that they used the 187th pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft to select him.

“Everything fell into place. The summer when I came home before the draft I was talking to a few of my buddies and was telling them there’s a couple of NHL teams that have expressed interest and that there’s a chance I could get drafted. They didn’t believe me, they thought I was joking because I couldn’t make a WHL team and I didn’t make AAA in Saskatoon.”

“It was quite a moment, there were so many players that were considered better than me growing up that played major junior that didn’t get drafted. So it was a bit of a moment where people realized there’s some real potential there.”

When his dream of being drafted into the NHL came true in June, it wasn’t too long after that Collins would be heading to Ithaca, New York to attend Cornell University and play Division I hockey for the Big Red.

From 2008-2012, Collins played 136 games in a Cornell uniform with the likes of NHL’ers Ben Scrivens, Colin Greening, and Riley Nash. During the 2008-09 season, Collins was named to the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC), All-Academic Team. The following season, the Big Red captured the ECAC championship.

“For an ivy league school, they produce high-quality hockey players. It was a great experience. When you’re at Cornell, you’re with the best and the brightest academically with a lot of high-achievers so it motivates you to push yourself and achieve great things yourself.”

After earning his degree in applied economics and management from Cornell, Collins inked a two-year, entry-level contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets where he would go on to play 19 games with the big club and 203 with their affiliate, Springfield Falcons in the AHL.

“It was the lockout year my first-year pro so, until January, all the young Columbus top prospects were there. Guys like Cam Atkinson, Ryan Johansen, and Jonathan Marchessault. I was just trying to make the team. I worked my way up the lineup and gained the confidence of the coaching staff and when the lockout ended in January, a handful of the players went up to Columbus. I didn’t really know if I was going to get an opportunity that year but I knew the number of minutes I was playing and my confidence I had put in the coaching staff that I would be high on their radar for a call-up. I ended up playing five games over a month and a half near the end of February. I got to play in Calgary and Edmonton with some family and friends at the game so that was a cool experience.”

“I never really got the opportunity to play full-time minutes or a real extended opportunity to show what I could do. So after three years in Columbus, I was a free agent and I went to Washington on a one year deal to see if I could break through there. I had a really good training camp and made the team out of camp. I played the first two games then Nicklas Backstrom came back from injury and I got sent down to Hershey and was there the rest of the season.”

Following his season with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League where he finished fifth on his team in scoring, Collins had a choice to make.  Continue to grind for a spot in the National Hockey League, or take a leap of faith and play professionally overseas.

“After that season I wasn’t old, but I felt like I was old in pro hockey terms to break in and be a full-time NHLer,” Collins said of the difficulty in making the NHL. “It’s just the way the NHL was going, they would rather develop a 21-year-old than a 27-year-old so I kind of saw the writing on the wall.

The opportunity came up for Collins to play in Bejing, China for the Kunlun Red Star of the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in the clubs inaugural season in the Russian based league.

“It was such a new experience. You don’t think of hockey in China. There were so many unanswered questions, even after I had signed. I was trying to get as much information as I could but it was just so limited. The team was approved in June and training camp started in July in Finland so no one really knew what to expect. I still think it was one of the most enjoyable hockey seasons I’ve had because everyone was kind of in it together.”

“From a hockey experience, it was really strange. You come from playing at Cornell and in the AHL and NHL where they take care of everything. In China, they didn’t have the equipment. CCM gave them a bunch of stuff to start the season, but of course, you can’t be using stock skates after using custom skates your entire career. They didn’t have any of that stuff even though a lot of the equipment is made in China, everything has to be sent out and then imported back in.”

“When we went to Europe, everyone would be jumping in a taxi and going to the hockey store to buy sticks because we wouldn’t have some of that stuff. It was a really enjoyable year with the teammates I had, but hockey-wise it was a bit of a mess.”

Although his first season in China didn’t go exactly as planned, Collins made the most of the opportunity playing in the KHL and parlayed his first season into a new contract with a different team in the KHL.

“I look back fondly on the experience. I had a good season and had the opportunity with other established Russian teams so it was a no-brainer to leave and go to Sochi. The travel wears on you, I think we traveled 250,000 km which is about four and a half times around the world.”

“So I’ve been in Sochi, Russia for the last two years and just resigned about a month ago so I’m going back for a third. It’s a really beautiful place, with a great climate. There’s no real winter there. Of course, they hosted the Winter Olympics so the mountains are about 40-minutes away,” Collins concluded.

Through two seasons with HC Sochi, Collins has played in 105 regular season games where he has scored 23 goals and 28 assists.

Collins ranks second all-time in scoring on the Wolverines with 204 points, second in assists with 133 and third in goals scored with 71. His 1.56 points-per-game total ranks second all-time, only behind his former linemate Carter Davis who ranks first with a 1.63 points-per-game rank.

Sean ranks first in all-time points in a single season with 115, first in all-time goals in a single season with 51 and first in all-time assists in a single season with 69.