Any fan old enough to remember the 1994 Stanley Cup finals will remember the final few nail-biting seconds of game 7, when the New York Rangers were finally, after 54 years, about to defeat the Vancouver Canucks and capture the coveted cup. It was the kind of unforgettable moment that had spectators on the edge of their seats, players on the edge of their skates, and the fate of a highly-charged championship game hanging in the balance.
Collins laughs as he tells the story now, and about some of the fallout afterwards. “I got a call from one of my cousins in New York who said to me, ‘Do you know how many people would have killed you if the Rangers had lost?’ I even received a four-page letter from a guy telling me how I blew that call.”
Collins, however, knows that he made the right call, as nerve-wracking as it might have been for Rangers’ fans. His 37-year outstanding career—28 of those spent on the ice—and recent induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, are testaments to his impeccable professionalism and unmatched expertise.
“For an official, to work a seventh game is like winning the championship for a player,” said Collins. “The importance of the game is huge. There is no tomorrow. The Stanley Cup is the top tier, the pinnacle of officiating, and it’s extraordinarily competitive to get to that point, it’s all based on your work.”
Collins has based his life on his work and is recognized as one of the most highly-respected officials in the sport, and only the second official ever to be named to the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. In addition to handling more than 2,000 regular season and playoff games, Collins worked 32 games in 12 Stanley Cup Finals, officiated two All-Star Games, the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, and four Canada Cup tournaments. In 2004, he came off the ice and took a management position overseeing the linesman staff, and fully retired in 2013 to enter the private business sector.
It’s the kind of career that might make a lesser man smug, but Collins is greater than the sum of his stats. He also spent decades negotiating contract agreements as the longest-serving member of the NHL Officials’ Association (NHLOA) and the first linesman to serve as its president. One of the greatest compliments he ever received came from high-powered attorneys out of Toronto who knew him from those negotiating days. “My name came up in a conversation,” Collins said, “and apparently these guys said that in all their years of negotiating contracts, they’d never known anyone who cared as much about everybody he represented, no one who had worked harder to make sure everyone got a piece of the pie.
“You know, stats are impressive but, at the end of the day, all they show is that I worked hard and did it for a long time. More importantly, I’m very proud of running a referee school for 23 years and starting the U.S. Hockey Officiating Development Program that has seen hundreds of officials progress through the system, with a number of them making it to the NHL. The things that touch my heart and bring tears to my eyes are all these officials who contacted me and said I played a part in making their career better-‘the way you taught, the way you were always there to help, how you were like a big brother to me’–those are the things that matter most.”
Collins grew up knowing what matters, and his north star was his father. After his freshman and sophomore years on the ice at AIC, he realized he would need some scholarship assistance if he was going to be able to continue to play. “I went to the coach in September of my junior year and he told me all the scholarship funds had been given out, but if I wanted to talk to the athletic director I could, though he warned me the AD would tell me the same thing.”
Collins went to his father, as he usually did for help with the tough questions, and his father advised him from his own experience. “My father was a brick-layer,” said Collins, “and he explained to me how, in order to get new work, he would submit a low bid, do an excellent job, and then if the client wanted to hire him again, he would ask for his true price. ‘If he wants me because I do great work, he’ll pay me what I’m worth.’ My father told me to know my value and approach it that way.”
Collins met with the AD for what would turn out to be the first lesson and excellent preparation for a lifetime’s worth of tough career negotiations. “The AD told me the same thing the coach had, that they loved me and were counting on me, but all the scholarship money had been allocated. So I told him that I paid my own tuition and I had to work and, if I had to work, I couldn’t play that year. He seemed shocked and disappointed, but that was the end of the conversation.
“I got up and walked to the door of his office, which was about 10 feet away but it felt like 10 miles. With every step I was thinking, am I crazy? I’m walking away from my entire hockey career. But I kept going. I remembered what my father had said and I put my hand on the doorknob, began turning it, and all of a sudden the AD yells, ‘Kevin! Get back here! If I get you a partial scholarship for this year, can you play? And I’ll get you a full scholarship for next year.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Dave Forbes, Collins’ AIC teammate and fraternity “Big Brother,” also was instrumental in shaping Collins’ destiny. “One day the rink manager where we used to practice announced they were starting a kids’ league and they needed refs. They would pay $2 a game—which was pretty good back then—and Forbes said he would do it, and so would I! Of course, because I was a commuter and could use my parents’ car, I could be the driver, so it worked out for both of us. And that was the start of my officiating career.
“Forbes was probably the best player of that era,” said Collins, “and the craziest thing was a couple of years after we graduated, he was playing for the Boston Bruins and I was calling him offsides.”
It wasn’t all ice all the time at AIC, though. Collins credits one of his professors, Henry Benjamin, with having had a lasting influence. “He taught natural history, and everyone said it was such a tough course and it was all facts. But I had no choice, it was a requirement, so I took it and it wasn’t all facts. Professor Benjamin taught it at the big-picture level, and he was way ahead of his time being an environmentalist. He opened my eyes to seeing things from more than one perspective, and I’ve carried that with me all my life.
“He was also very involved with the sports teams, and that also affected me. He demonstrated how if you get involved in something, if you go all in, good results happen. He’s very involved in the school and with the alumni, and when AIC inducted me into their Hall of Fame, he said some kind things about me. He’s a great ambassador for the school, and he showed me a lot about life.”
These days, life for Collins and his wife of 43 years, Mary, involves enjoying their four grandchildren: Ella, 8; Tyler, 2; Alexandra, 7 months; and Caydance, 4 months. “I look back,” said Collins, “and I wouldn’t change anything. Every person who ever gave advice or guided me led me to where I am today. I’m starting a business now, and everything I do I have a passion for. My father always said, if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. It all goes back to my upbringing. If you have basics like that and you believe in them, you’ll find the right path to success.”
-By Ellen Dooley
Featured Photo Credit: RJB Sports