By Doug Reese
FLORENCE, S.C. – Brian Collins likes to talk.
Not “let’s have a polite conversation” talk – there’s no verbal response required.
The Pee Dee Pride forward yaks. On and on.
Part of it’s just him having a good time. But it’s also a tool.
Collins can get under his opponent’s skin on the strength of his mouth – without having to sink a tooth into them.
And part of the constant yammering is therapy.
“Sometimes you have a bad practice or, like (at practice Monday), the ice is bad and you’re making bad plays,” Collins said. “I could go crazy if I just sat there. I just keep the chatter going and have fun out there playing hockey.“I talk as much as I can, try to tick the goalies off – I enjoy doing that.”
Pride coach Perry Florio picked up on the trait pretty quickly during training camp, particularly when a certain Boston baseball team favored by the Shrewsbury, Mass., native knocked off Florio’s beloved Yankees.
The Red Sox’s historic rally from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series provided Collins with plenty of fodder for a verbal assault.The subsequent World Series sweep over St. Louis, which ended an 86-year championship drought in Boston, allowed Collins to gab the point home.
“You can always hear his jaw flapping in there,” Florio said. “He’s a big Red Sox fan and we’ve been hearing about it.”
Collins has been able to get away with it, backed by Boston’s postseason play. As for the on-ice smack talk, 24-year-old’s providing his own backup.
Collins leads Pee Dee with four goals – including a power-play tally, a shorthander and a game-winner – and eight points. Those numbers are also among the ECHL leaders – his goal total is tied for fourth in the league while the points are tied for fifth.
And he’s registered at least a point in all six Pride games.
The results have come from another source for the second-year pro’s chatter: confidence.
“That’s my whole thing,” he said. “If I feel confident, I can contribute offensively and be effective every game. I always try to be confident and aggressive. If you’re those two things out there, I think you’re gonna be pretty successful. Right now, I’m feeling confident.”
While Florio didn’t anticipate the bravado last spring, when Collins was the player to be named later in a late trade, he did recognize the talent.
The struggling Pride sent Eric Naud to the Pensacola Ice Pilots last season to help their veteran forward earn a little extra money in the playoffs. Pee Dee got nothing immediately, but Florio named his price up front, Collins, in what now amounts to a short-term loan.
The Pride re-signed Naud, a gritty fan favorite, in the offseason. So for a few weeks’ of Naud’s time in a lost 2003-04 season – the franchise’s first sub-.500 and non-playoff year – Pee Dee now holds the deed to both players.
Pensacola didn’t get Collins outright either. The former Boston University standout, a third-round pick of the New York Islanders in 1999, signed with the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies for his rookie season last October.
But less than two weeks after signing, Collins was traded to Pensacola – a fact that might have inspired a little extra out of the 6-0 and 195-pound forward in the Pride’s season opener. He registered the deciding goal – a hard-angle shot that broke a 2-2 tie 7:04 into the third period – in a win over the Bullies.While Collins said he doesn’t hold anything against Atlantic City for the trade, he did admit one sticking point that might have provided a little oomph to a lifetime Red Sox fan.
“The day they traded me I had to drive home and I missed Game 6 of the ALCS,” Collins said, referring to the 9-6 Boston win that forced Game 7 in the epic 2003 series against the Yankees. “I was a little bitter about missing that game.”
The Red Sox lost that series, falling 6-5 in an 11-inning finale – a heartbreaker for Boston fans everywhere.
But a few days later, Collins began the first professional season in the sport he excels at.
He set the career scoring record at St. John’s High School with 209 points. His 38 goals and 73 points in a 28-game championship senior season led the hockey-strong state of Massachusetts. Collins capped his prep days with a four-goal performance in the title-clinching game for St. John’s.
“You always want to win your last game of the year no matter what level,” Collins said. “High school, pro college, whatever, you always want to win your last game. And that was the one year I was fortunate enough to do so.“In college we had some good teams, but we were never able to win anything.”
That’s not to say Collins didn’t revel in his Boston University days. In fact, one particular college tournament provided the highlight of his career.
Nothing has – or likely can – top the Beanpot, an annual event that pits four major Boston area schools – Boston University, Boston College, Harvard University and Northeastern University – against each other. The competition dates back more than 50 years. For most of its history, the Beanpot was held at the Boston Garden. After the legendary arena closed, the tournament moved, along with the NHL’s Boston Bruins, to the FleetCenter.
And that’s where Collins lived out a childhood dream.
“The Beanpot was always one of my best memories,” he said. “The first two Mondays every February we’d play in the FleetCenter, where the Bruins play. It’d be sold out.
“In my four years we won it three times, which was unbelievable. That’s what I’d dreamed of since I was a little kid and I was fortunate enough to play in it.”
There, hockey is as close to religion as it gets south of the Canadian border.Here, where the sport is more of a novelty, Collins – like many of his Pride teammates, including fellow Boston University alums Mark Mullen and Gregg Johnson – has to explain some of the game’s subtleties.
“The people enjoy hockey,” he said. “It’s a little new to them. They might not always know what’s going on. They’ll come up and say, ‘I don’t know what y’all are doing out there, but it’s sure fun to watch.’”
So far, Collins has given the Pride faithful plenty to cheer about. And he’s given himself plenty to talk about.