There are no direct flights from Chicago to Abbotsford.
The distance spans over 3,300 kilometres and crosses more than half the continent.
Chicago is also where new Abbotsford Canucks head coach Jeremy Colliton experienced the highs and lows of life as a National Hockey League coach.
He became the youngest coach in Blackhawks history in 2018 and took over from three-time Stanley Cup champion Joel Quenneville. But that run ended abruptly last year.
It’s those travels, the ups and downs and distance that Colliton is aiming to bring to Abbotsford starting this fall.
The hockey dream began for Colliton in the tiny farming community of Blackie, Alta., which had a listed population of 360 in the 2021 census. He explained that the local ice rink was right across from his school and nearly every day after school was spent there.
His skills continued to develop and he caught on with several local and regional teams before being acquired by the now-defunct Crownest Pass Timberwolves of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He played one season there before he was chosen in the first round, eighth overall in the Western Hockey League draft by the Prince Albert Raiders.
Colliton spent four seasons with the Raiders and went on to score 176 points in 229 games. He said his time with the Raiders helped him mature.
“That was my first exposure to living away from home and finding a way to take care of yourself,” he said. “Obviously you have billets too – and I had great billets – but the older guys there took care of me and I had a lot of fun. It’s a huge leap for 16-year-olds for sure and it was a challenge at times, but I have so many good memories from my time there.”
The 2004-05 season was Colliton’s most successful in Prince Albert, as the team had a deep playoff run and advanced to the WHL Eastern Conference finals.
Colliton was chosen in the second round, 58th overall by the New York Islanders in 2003 and said it was a dream come true. But he said he learned – and hopes others realize – that the draft is merely one small step in a professional career.
“Guys need to realize it’s a long journey,” he said. “When you’re at the draft you’re thinking where am I going to go, what number will I be and all that seems really important, but in the end it’s kind of one check on the box.”
He then reported to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers – the Islanders American Hockey League affiliate – starting in the 2005-06 season. The years that followed saw Colliton have success in the AHL and attempt to crack the NHL lineup. He said his time in the AHL was so important to his development and made him respect the league.
“The environment in the AHL is so important for a young player,” he said. “It really makes a difference. Just the atmosphere where you’re playing and what it’s like to come to the rink everyday. At times, for me, it was really great and others it wasn’t. So that’s what I look at as my role here in Abbotsford – trying to create an environment where guys can develop and improve.”
Colliton said he has seen the AHL transform and really put more effort into developing players compared to when he was playing.
“I think the league has changed,” he said. “The model for how you deal with your AHL team is now totally different for how you deal with your prospects. They get way more feedback and help now than when I was coming up.”
He played parts of six seasons with the Sound Tigers and served as both the team’s assistant captain and captain. He collected 203 points in 326 games in the AHL. He dressed for 57 games over five seasons with the Islanders, recording six points. Colliton admitted that he believes the mental part of the game prevented him from reaching his full potential.
“I got a lot of my opportunities in the NHL when I was younger and I probably wasn’t ready,” he said. “Just not mentally prepared to seize the day and I had some self-doubt. It wasn’t that I couldn’t play there, but mentally I just couldn’t get rid of some of that nervousness.”
He said he eventually got over that as he got older, but then injury issues flared up. He left the Islanders organization in 2012 and won the Allan Cup with the Bentley Generals in 2013. He played in Sweden in both 2009-10 and 2013-14, but concussion issues forced him to step away from the game. He said his time in Sweden helped launch his coaching career and helped him develop more confidence in the role. He coached with Mora and helped the club earn promotion to the SHL in his final year in 2017.
The Blackhawks organization then reached out to Colliton after his success in Sweden and he took the reins of Chicago’s AHL affiliate the Rockford Icehogs for the 2017-18 season. Colliton said returning to the AHL felt comfortable.
“My first year we made the conference finals and had some success,” he said. “I felt like I knew the league and it felt easy and we had a lot of fun.”
Plans changed quickly though when Joel Quenneville was fired early into the 2018-19 season and Colliton, then just 33, was named the team’s new head coach. The Blackhawks missed the playoffs in his first season behind the bench, but then qualified in 2019-20. The Hawks were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in round one that season. The team also failed to make the playoffs in 2020-21 and, after a 1-9-2 start in 2021-22, Colliton was fired.
He finished with a record of 87-92-26 with Chicago, and said it was tough at times but that he appreciates the experience.
“It was a big challenge and I probably didn’t realize how big a challenge it was,” he said. “There was so much that happened that made it so challenging, but the experience I gained is really going to help me moving forward. I felt like I did everything I could to try and make it work. No one likes getting fired, but at the same time whatever I end up doing down the road – Chicago will be a part of it.”
He said the Chicago experience did not sour him on coaching.
“Helping players develop and turning that into winning is the best feeling there is,” he said. “Being part of a successful team is such a special feeling and we’re all searching for that.”
The Abbotsford opportunity came about when Vancouver Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin contacted Colliton in the winter. They developed a rapport and Colliton said Allvin let him know that they wanted him in the organization, but they just weren’t sure where he would fit.
A reshuffling of the coaching staff occurred after the season and it opened up the head coaching position in Abbotsford, a role that Colliton coveted. He was officially hired on July 1.
Vancouver Canucks announced today Mike Yeo and Trent Cull have been named Assistant Coaches with Vancouver.
Jeremy Colliton will take over as Head Coach of the Abbotsford Canucks, while Brad Shaw will be leaving the organization.
— Vancouver #Canucks (@Canucks) July 1, 2022
“I think the Abbotsford job fits me really well and I feel I can contribute to the long-term success of the organization,” he said. “Hopefully we can develop some players who can make a difference in Vancouver. I feel good about the direction of the organization and where it’s going and just wanted to be a part of it.”
He said the recent Canucks development camp was a great chance to meet the prospects and staff. He added that he liked what he saw.
“I was really impressed with the whole group,” he said. “We had some good size and I liked the competitiveness on a bunch of our forwards. The one guy who stuck out was [Tristen] Nielsen. I thought he just carried himself like a pro and really stood out.”
Colliton also said that he was asked his opinion on free agent signings and former Blackhawks Collin Delia and Wyatt Kalynuk. He believes both players have the potential to play in Vancouver, but that he would welcome them in Abbotsford.
“Both of those guys are going to come to camp and try to make Vancouver,” he said. “If they end up in Abbotsford then obviously I have a relationship with them and that would be a benefit.”
He said he wants to see Abbotsford play a puck-possession game and outskate the opposition.
— Ben Lypka (@BenLypka) July 28, 2022
“We want to have the puck,” he said. “If you have possession of the puck 200 feet away from the net then you’re going to be a pretty good defending team. It also gives you an opportunity to create offence and draw penalties. We also want to dictate the game pace, win race and win puck battles. Pace and skating is obviously a big part of our game too. We’re going to try and play as close as we can to how Vancouver plays to make that transition as easy as possible. Ultimately we want a winning environment and guys who are competitive.”
The next big event for the Canucks organization is the Young Stars Classic tournament in Penticton from Sept. 16 to 19. Training camps for Vancouver and Abbotsford occur after that. Abbotsford opens the season on Oct. 14 and the team’s home opener is set for Oct. 28.