Christmas came early for Thomas McCollum this year, simply because he has been a very, very good boy.
Between the pipes, that is.
So good that the Cambria resident, who just turned 17 on Dec. 7, forced management for the Guelph Storm of the Canadian Major Junior Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to trade a veteran netminder because the kid slated to be the backup just was too good to keep him nailed to the bench. That's especially the case when a team with goal-scoring issues had a chance to cure that ill because it had a glut of talent at the most important position on the ice.
When McCollum signed as a free agent over the summer, coach, general manager and former NHL forward Dave Barr inked the former Wheatfield Blades' netminder with the idea of playing him in 10 to 15 games.
Twenty-six games later, the 6-foot-1, 196-pound McCollum entered his team's Christmas break, which runs until a game Thursday night at Oshawa, with the league's second-best goals-against average (2.54) and the seventh-best save percentage (.912).
Not bad for a kid who looked utterly out of place during the first week of practice in September.
"I didn't really expect [to play this much] at all," said McCollum, one of just three Americans on the roster and the only one from New York State. "I think it's just mostly because I got off to such a good start.
"The first couple of days I was getting beaten pretty badly because everything is so much faster. It takes some time to get used to the speed."
In McCollum's case, it took him about a week to catch up to the quickness of playing in the highest level of junior hockey. The OHL regularly churns out NHL and minor-league professional players. Former Buffalo Sabre Jay McKee is a graduate of the "O," as are current Sabres Brian Campbell and Derek Roy.
"I thought he started a little bit slow," Barr said. "We were hoping he'd be good enough to back up and then he just took off. . . . He just never, never looked like a rookie in goal. He's very confident. He played the puck well and he still does. He never showed signs of being a rookie and he still hasn't."
Every goalie wants to get a shutout when he or she plays. Sometimes it happens. A lot of times, it doesn't. But solid showings can be rewarding, while serving as a motivator for becoming better. McCollum didn't waste any time getting that first shutout, making 34 saves in his debut -- a 5-0 win over Windsor. That performance resulted in future starts in which he followed up with back-to-back 25-save showings in a shootout loss and an overtime loss.
He's lost eight starts in which he's given up three or fewer goals, including a pair of defeats in which he was beaten just once.
"It's a surprise it happened so quickly," said proud father Paul McCollum of his son's quick ascent to the No. 1 job. "We hadn't expected the coach would trade the No. 1 goalie so quickly and give Thomas the No. 1 job a month into the season. It definitely was a big surprise but he has definitely played well. He's earned what he's got so far. It's been quite a jump for him.
"You never know what kids are going to be able to jump up to the next level when they get to their teenage years. But to get up to this level has definitely been a major accomplishment for him and he's worked for it. . . . It's been fun. My wife and myself are two proud parents to see him not just play, but play and excel at that level."
Barr traded incumbent starter Jason Guy to Kingston in mid-October because both are too good to be backups and he wanted to give both a chance to play. Guy also is in his draft year.
Thomas McCollum has started 13 of the past 14 games and 20 of 23 since Guy was dealt for forward Luke Pither, who has amassed seven goals and 12 points in 21 games.
"It gave me quite a bit of confidence," McCollum said of the shutout. "Things just took off from there."
McCollum's win-loss record doesn't actually reflect the impact he's had on the team. He's 11-10-1-3. But the youngest goalie in the OHL is a big reason the Storm have allowed the third fewest goals in the league.
They've scored the fifth fewest out of 20 teams. They're the only one of the five offensively challenged teams with a winning record (16-14-5)..
"Thomas gives us a chance to win every night," Barr said, adding that McCollum has played below average only two or three times.
"He's just got a great work ethic and he comes to compete every night," his coach said. "He just came in and he just looked solid [almost] every single night.
"There are some times when goalies come in and look nice and are flopping around [and not really under control]. He never showed signs he couldn't handle 40 or 50 games, just with his approach to the game. He does not like to give up a goal. He drives himself to not fail."
And that is why McCollum has been the exception to the rule in the OHL. Typically, young netminders don't set the world on fire when playing their first season of major junior hockey. But he's already caught the eye of NHL scouts.
"He has NHL scouts drooling right now," Barr said. "If he was available this year he'd probably go in the first couple of rounds. He needs to keep improving and keep working at his game. I don't see him not doing that. Mentally he's learning right now how to handle the downs, how to handle the lows. That's what he's really going to learn from."
McCollum won't be eligible for the draft until 2008. In order to be draft-eligible, players must be 18 years old by Sept. 15.
Getting off to such a fast start in a league that has a habit of producing NHLers does beg the question: Are thoughts of being drafted dancing around McCollum's head?
"I don't really try to think about it too much," McCollum said. "It's nothing I really have any control over. It's the type of thing that can make you nervous before a game. . . . If an NHL team wants to give me an opportunity, I'd be more than happy to take a chance and get the opportunity."