Last Friday, Sean Collins was riding a stationary bike after practice when he got word that Hershey Bears head coach Bob Woods wanted to see him in his office.
A million thoughts raced through Collins' mind as he made his way to Woods' office. Was he being sent down to South Carolina? Was he being traded?
"I wasn't sure what was going on," said Collins, a former Stingrays defenseman. "I can tell you it was a pretty long walk for me. You try to stay positive, you want to think positive things, but when you're called into the coach's office you never know what's going to happen."
When Collins entered Woods' office,
Hershey general manager Doug Yingst was there as well.
"They both had real serious looks on their faces and I was like, 'OK, this can't be good,' " Collins said.
Woods and Yingst, however, couldn't contain themselves, and after only a few seconds they finally broke the news that the former Ohio State star was being called up to the Washington Capitals for weekend games with Toronto and Carolina.
"I was speechless at first," he said. "I was like, 'Please, this better not be a joke because that's not funny. Don't mess with me.' I remember (Woods) saying something about getting packed for Toronto (the Capitals' opponent this past Saturday night) and I didn't hear much after that. It was the best news I've ever gotten in my life. I couldn't believe it. It was literally a dream come true for me."
As soon as Collins left Woods' office, he called his father, and then every member of his family and close friends.
"I ran up some serious minutes on my cell phone," he said. "I think I called everyone on my 'contact list.' "
While Collins said he had plenty of first-game jitters during warm-ups against the Maple Leafs, he tried to treat his National Hockey League debut like any other game.
"I knew if I got starry-eyed I wasn't going to last long or play very well," Collins said. "Of course I was a little nervous the first couple of shifts, but after a while I settled down and started to feel comfortable."
Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau showed plenty of confidence in the 6-1, 212-pound undrafted rookie as Collins, wearing No. 62, logged 18 shifts and spent 13 minutes, 42 seconds, on the ice against Toronto.
"That helped out a lot, because I was getting a regular shift," hes said. "I didn't get any special teams time, I just played 5-on-5, but I was playing a regular shift so there wasn't a lot of sitting around and waiting to play."
The Capitals won, 2-1, on Milan Jurcina's goals in the third period. But the best part for Collins was afterward when he walked out of the tunnel to meet with his family and friends who'd made the trip.
"I'll never forget that as long as I live," Collins said. "My parents were there. My sister flew in from Los Angeles. My brother came, and about eight of my friends were there. That was my favorite part. Seeing my whole family and all my friends and sharing that with them. It seemed like they were just as excited as I was."
The next night, Collins was back in the lineup at Carolina and his playing time rose to 14:50 and 23 shifts. But the Capitals lost, 3-1, with the Hurricanes' Eric Staal scoring the game-winner in the third period.
"Staal is such a good player," Collins said. "He's big, he's strong. He can skate. That's guys incredible."
In his first two NHL games, he totaled 41 shifts and 28:32. More importantly, the Capitals didn't give up a goal when Collins was on the ice.
"I think that's what I'm most proud of," he said. "As a defenseman, my job is to keep the puck out of our net."
In the wake of his top-flight debut, it's hard to believe that just seven months ago Collins was in the Lowcountry — 500 miles and two leagues away from the NHL. Collins, a free agent, started the 2007-08 season with Hershey in the American Hockey League, but a concussion sidelined him for more than two months.
In early February, Collins was sent down to South Carolina, and he stayed for the rest of the season. Instead of pouting, he used the time to work on his conditioning and hone his skills.
"I needed the ice time to get back into game shape, and there were too many defensemen up in Hershey," Collins said. "I wanted to be up in the American League, but I could do the math and see I was going to have to wait my turn. Coming to South Carolina was probably the best thing for me."
In all, he played in 51 ECHL games for the Stingrays, including 20 during the team's run to the Kelly Cup American Conference finals. Collins said it was the confidence that Stingrays coach Jared Bednar showed in him early on that helped turn around his season.
"I owe Jared a lot," Collins said. "I'm not sure I'd have made it up to Washington this season without him and the Stingrays. This is a confidence game, and Jared showed a lot of confidence in me from the very beginning. That helped out tremendously. He let me make mistakes and learn from them, and that was huge."
Collins became the first player under Bednar to make it to the NHL.
"What amazes me is how quickly it happened for Sean," Bednar said. "Last spring, he was here with us and then 20 games later in the American League, and he's up in the National League. So the fact that it happened so quickly for Sean is what surprises me, not that he's actually made it.
"Sean has really made the most of his opportunities. They had some injuries up in Washington and he was playing well in Hershey at the time and he got the call. It just shows you how quickly things can change. I couldn't be prouder of Sean."
Bednar said he began to think Collins had a realistic chance of making it to the NHL this fall during Hershey's preseason camp.
" I saw him at Hershey's camp and he looked great," Bednar said. "He had trimmed down, he lost about 10 pounds, and he was skating really well. He's a big, strong kid and he sees the ice very well. He's not fancy in the ECHL, he's not fancy in the American League and he's not fancy in the National League. He keeps his game simple, and a lot of times that's what teams are looking for.
"He can do a lot of things for a team. He can kill penalties. He can move the puck well enough to get on the power play and he's got a good shot, and because he's lost some weight he's a little quicker than he used to be."
Collins doesn't know what the future holds, but he knows his first two NHL games can never be taken away from him.
"I'm going to make the most of my opportunity," Collins said. "The door has been opened and now it's up to me to make the most of it. I'm going to stay here as long as I can."
Kroll returns to Rays
Defenseman Johann Kroll has been returned to the Stingrays from Hershey of the AHL.
Kroll, 23, was loaned to the Bears last Friday and played two games with the Bears without recording a point and had a plus/minus of +3. The rookie is scheduled to return in time to make South Carolina's trip to Florida this weekend.
Reach Andrew Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out the Stingrays blog at, www.charleston.net/blogs/stingrays.
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