Being the head coach of the Rockford IceHogs provides Jeremy Colliton with a unique perspective on the young men he spends every day preparing.
"I was in their shoes not too long ago, and I know it is important to understand how they are feeling," Colliton said. "Being able to explain that I have been where they are and say the right thing at the right time is paramount. It helps them digest your message to be in the best position to succeed."
As American Hockey League players, Colliton's IceHogs are just one step below the bright lights of the NHL, which means his primary responsibility is to develop the young, talented roster he possesses.
"You can tell he played the game and just by talking to him you gain knowledge. That was something that was really eye-opening to me," said winger Matthew Highmore, who led Rockford in goals during the regular season and also spent 13 games with the Blackhawks. "He knows the game and, more importantly, he gets to know his players. That was evident within 10 minutes of meeting him."
"Jeremy has done a fantastic job," said Blackhawks Senior Vice President and General Manager Stan Bowman. "The players I've spoken to playing there are very upbeat about his demeanor and his approach to the game. He seems to find a way to get everyone excited about their roles and buying into the team."
At 33-years-old, Colliton isn't far removed from his playing days, but his yearning for the game may be stronger than ever.
"He's got so much passion for hockey," said Rockford's leading point-getter Anthony Louis. "Even if you just see him playing 3-on-3 for fun, you can sense that he can still hold his own on the ice and he just loves it."
A second-round draft pick of the New York Islanders in 2003, Colliton spent six seasons in the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. As his North American playing career ended, he accepted a contract in Sweden. There he played a short time for Mora IK before calling it a career. However, Colliton was preparing for the move from player to coach for a while.
"I was always determining how I would do things, what I liked and didn't like, what could work," Colliton said.
He kicked off his coaching career with Mora IK just months later. The squad registered a 35-4-13 season in 2016-17 and earned a first-place finish in Sweden's second-tier league. Mora IK was promoted for their next season.
Colliton would not be around to coach against the upgraded competition though, as the Blackhawks took interest and named him head coach of their AHL affiliate on May 18, 2017.
Under Colliton's guidance Rockford earned a 40-28-4 and will compete in the Calder Cup Playoffs out of the Central Division for the first time since 2016. They open against the Chicago Wolves on Saturday, April 21.
"We want to develop players who understand how to win," Colliton said. "We need guys with winning habits who approach each day with a vigor and passion. That way they are happy when we have team success that will lead to individual success in the future."
Winning is something Rockford has done a lot of as of late. Finding themselves in sixth place as the regular-season stretch approached, the IceHogs took a turn that most wouldn't have expected from the organization following their 25 total wins a year ago.
On the backs of a number of players who were just getting their first taste of the AHL, the IceHogs exploded to earn points in 16 of their last 21 tilts and put together a season-long win streak of six games to officially cement their playoff status.
"You work on your game around the clock," Louis said. "We have a skill session before practice and work on stuff following practice, lifts and nutrition meetings once we are off the ice. Then you can come in for video sessions with Coach Colliton and other coaches whenever you want. All you have to do is give them a call or text them and they will be there for you."
This approach has yielded All-Star caliber play through Colliton's first season with the team. Both Vinnie Hinostroza and Erik Gustafsson were chosen as Central Division All-Star members, but passed on the event having been called up to the Blackhawks. Defenseman Carl Dahlstrom and Highmore got to show their skills as alternates.
"A lot of credit has to be given to Coach Colliton for me playing in the All-Star game this season," Highmore said. "He gave me every opportunity to produce, even just early on working on little things and fine tuning my game. He is always there when I need him."
Rockford has had 11 different players called up this season, while John Hayden spent time in the AHL to develop his game between trips to Chicago.
"I don't think I'd be where I am without his understanding of the game and the way he deals with players," said Collin Delia, a rookie goalie who earned his first NHL win after being recalled from Rockford. "He is a tremendous coach and probably one of the best I've ever had."
"When they get the call, I try not to give them too much advice, the work should be done," Colliton said. "While I am always available when they need me, we as a staff have prepared them for this level, spent every day determining their role and haven't wasted any time. Once they are at the next level they are fully prepared to be effective."
With his inaugural season is in its final chapter, the young coach now has help from Chicago in the form of Hayden, David Kampf, Andreas Martinsen, Viktor Ejdsell, Jeff Glass and J-F Berube. Their skill and experience could prove valuable in the postseason.
"Winning is important, but I am focused on these guys responding to feedback and growing their games," Colliton said. "Are they focused on improvement? Are their intentions correct? Are they playing for the team? If so, I am doing my job."