With Colliton in control, Rockford IceHogs charge into playoffs

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Jeremy Colliton helped to lead the Rockford IceHogs to a playoff berth in his first season as the team's coach in the American Hockey League. The Blackhawks hired Colliton in May 2017.

    Jeremy Colliton helped to lead the Rockford IceHogs to a playoff berth in his first season as the team's coach in the American Hockey League. The Blackhawks hired Colliton in May 2017. Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs

 
 
Updated 4/19/2018 3:32 PM

After Cody Franson was assigned to the Rockford IceHogs in early January, he wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived in Ontario for the start of a six-game road trip.

Joining a team barely above .500 in the middle of a long, grinding AHL season, Franson half expected to find at least a few players grumbling about playing time, long practices or coaching philosophy.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It was just the opposite.

"I'd never really seen a group having that much enjoyment at the rink," said the 30-year-old defenseman. "The mood was light. It wasn't like they were having the greatest seasons of their lives, but everybody was having fun.

"That's a testament to a good coach."

That coach is 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton, an even-keeled yet confident Blackie, Alberta native, whom Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman hired to coach Rockford last May.

Under his steady guidance, Colliton led the IceHogs to a Calder Cup playoff berth one year after the team won only 25 games under Ted Dent. Rockford opens the postseason against the Chicago Wolves on Saturday in a best-of-five opening-round series.

So who, exactly, is Jeremy Colliton and how has he developed into potential NHL head-coaching prospect? Let's find out.

A second-round pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft, Jeremy Colliton played 57 games over five seasons for the New York Islanders.
A second-round pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft, Jeremy Colliton played 57 games over five seasons for the New York Islanders. - Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs
Crosby, Bergeron … and Colliton?

Colliton was no slouch as a pro hockey player. As a matter of fact, his skill set was so impressive that as a 19-year-old, he skated on a line with Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby and Boston's Patrice Bergeron for the Canadian World Juniors team in 2005.

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Two years before, Colliton was a second-round draft pick of the Islanders. The potential to become a consistent scoring force in the NHL was certainly there, but two things held him back: Injuries and a bit too much self doubt.

"I wish I'd have believed in myself a little bit more that I was good enough, and just worry less about what other people think," said Colliton, who played 57 games for New York over five seasons. "I figured that out when I was 23 or 24, but after that I never really got that extended run."

Colliton's best chance came in 2011 when he was 26. He scored a pair of goals in his first appearance and was averaging nearly 12 minutes, but in his 15th game Colliton separated his shoulder and bruised his ribs in one play. As soon as he was healthy, he was sent back to the AHL and never played another second in the NHL.

Jeremy Colliton, now the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, played 326 games in the AHL for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
Jeremy Colliton, now the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, played 326 games in the AHL for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. - Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs
Stronger, tougher:

The adversity Colliton faced helped transform him into a coach who understands the emotional roller-coaster of young, talented players. He's happy to lend a sympathetic ear or give a pat on the back, but he's also not afraid to deliver a tough message.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those leadership skills took root under Prince Alberts coach Peter Anholt, who slapped a captain's letter on Colliton in the WHL.

"He acted like a pro from Day One," Anholt said. "He just shows up to work every day, doesn't complain, he has no sense of entitlement whatsoever. It says a lot about his parents and his upbringing and where he came from."

Colliton admitted it was an uncomfortable feeling at first.

"That was the toughest thing in my career," he said. "He forced me to play that role when that was far from natural. That helped me as a coach. ...

"It's not that you love the confrontation; it's just, hey, you need to tell people what they need to know."

Whether he's addressing an individual or the team, he does so in calm, measured tones.

Said Franson: "He's portrayed himself in a way that when he comes in and says, 'Enough. We need to be better.' Then it's like, OK. He's serious.

"Which is impressive because a lot of times a coach needs to get vocal or show some emotion in order to get guys to snap out of a funk."

Jeremy Colliton has quickly gained the respect of his Rockford IceHogs players in his first season as the team's coach. Said veteran defenseman Cody Franson: "He's portrayed himself in a way that when he comes in and says, 'Enough. We need to be better.' Then (we realize) it's like, OK. He's serious."
Jeremy Colliton has quickly gained the respect of his Rockford IceHogs players in his first season as the team's coach. Said veteran defenseman Cody Franson: "He's portrayed himself in a way that when he comes in and says, 'Enough. We need to be better.' Then (we realize) it's like, OK. He's serious." - Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs
Perfect coach at perfect time:

Being an AHL coach means you wear dozens of hats.

• Sometimes it's helping a Vinnie Hinostroza or Tomas Jurco deal with a demotion at the end of training camp.

• Other times, you're trying to change the thinking of a talented, risk-taking defenseman like Erik Gustafsson.

• Then there's the joy of seeing forward Tyler Sikura, who barely made the team, regain his confidence and become a 20-goal scorer.

• And, of course, there's learning how to deal with the emotions of NHL veterans such as Franson and Lance Bouma, who arrived when the Hawks decided a youth movement was in order.

"Every relationship you have with a player, it's their own thing," Colliton said. "I'm learning more about each guy and what they need to have success and play at the next level."

Colliton's handling of Gustafsson and Sikura was particularly impressive.

• After playing 41 games for the Hawks in 2015-16, Gustafsson languished in Rockford last season, but grew his game under Colliton and earned a promotion in January.

Gustafsson appreciated how Colliton hammered home the little details and got him to stop taking so many unnecessary risks with the puck.

Said Gustafsson, who signed a two-year, $2.4 million extension with the Hawks in March: "He told us, 'I didn't (backcheck once) and the coach saw me, and I didn't play after that. You have to take advantage of whatever time you have. The five seconds you don't do your job can cost a goal against and you'll lose the game.'"

• The defensive-minded Sikura began the year on the fourth line and steadily improved, gaining more confidence in the offensive zone.

"For me, he was the perfect coach at the perfect time," said Sikura, who scored 23 goals and signed a one-year deal with the Hawks. "Trying to work your way into this league, you're playing fourth line and trying to not make mistakes. …

"But there's certain situations where he said, 'You can jump ahead here and we're expecting our D to make this play.' I've been able to get up the ice and create a lot more because of that."

Jeremy Colliton has helped develop players such as Erik Gustafsson and Tyler Sikura in his first year as the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs. "For me, he was the perfect coach at the perfect time," Sikura said.
Jeremy Colliton has helped develop players such as Erik Gustafsson and Tyler Sikura in his first year as the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs. "For me, he was the perfect coach at the perfect time," Sikura said. - Photo courtesy of Rockford IceHogs
The future:

Ask Colliton about one of his goals and his answer is simple: "I'd love to win the Stanley Cup. Haven't got to do that yet."

Of course, looking that far ahead isn't Colliton's nature. There's still plenty to learn.

About himself. About coaching. About getting through to players. And how to keep those players interested -- and motivated -- at all times.

"One formula is not going to work," Colliton said. "Just because something worked yesterday doesn't mean it's going to work today.

"We've got to keep reinventing a new way. Even if it should still work, they might get bored with it. … Part of making progress is repetition, but it's a balance. That's a fun part of the job. Pressure to keep evolving."

So might we see him in the NHL soon? According to Franson, a veteran of 550 NHL games with four franchises, that's a pretty good bet.

"I haven't seen one circumstance where he hasn't made the choice that me, as a player, was hoping he would make," Franson said. "Don't need to skate, we don't skate. Practice needs to be short and sweet -- it is. Need to work on something? That's what the practice is that day.

"He draws on his experience and coaches in that manner and the guys appreciate it."

"I think he's going to be a very good NHL coach one day."

Calder Cup playoffs

Chicago Wolves vs. Rockford IceHogs

(Best of 5 first-round series)

Game 1: Saturday at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

Game 2: Sunday at Rockford's BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.

Game 3: Thursday, April 26 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

* Game 4: Sunday, April 29 at BMO Harris Bank Center, 4 p.m.

* Game 5: Monday, April 30 at Allstate Arena, 7 p.m.

* If necessary

Jeremy Colliton, shown here battling Boston's Zdeno Chara for the puck in a preseason game, played 57 games for the New York Islanders in his NHL career.
Jeremy Colliton, shown here battling Boston's Zdeno Chara for the puck in a preseason game, played 57 games for the New York Islanders in his NHL career. - Associated Press/2011 file

• Twitter: @johndietzdh

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