OXFORD, Ohio – Miami hockey has not seen a large number of transfers, and even fewer switch colleges from New England to become RedHawks.
And although former Boston College defenseman and Montréal Canadiens draft pick Colin Sullivan has battled injuries throughout his collegiate career, he is completely healthy for the stretch run of his senior career.
“He puts in the work every day in practice, he’s always looking to get better,” senior and student coach Johnny Wingels said. “Early on the ice, late off the ice, it’s nice to see a good kid like him get his opportunity now and be rewarded for it.”
Sullivan originally committed to Yale while playing for Avon, a prestigious prep school near his hometown of Milford, Conn. He and his family decided he should remain at Avon to complete his high school years, and he decommitted from Yale and signed with Boston College.
He joined the Eagles in the fall of 2012, a year after being selected in the seventh round by Montréal.
“You’re playing for the best coach – and arguably the most decorated coach in college hockey,” Sullivan said. “Jerry York was an amazing coach, and it was a fun experience. My whole family’s from the Boston area, so it was nice having them come to every single one of my games.”
Sullivan logged 32 games with Boston College his freshman season, but playing time was an issue and he decided to pursue other options. Transferring players have to sit out for a season, and Sullivan joined USHL Green Bay while in limbo, accumulating a pair of goals and six assists in 41 games during 2013-14.
Fortunately for the RedHawks, a former MU forward contacted Sullivan and played a key role in bringing him to Oxford.
In prep school, Kevin Morris played for rival Salisbury with Sullivan’s best friend.
“Kevin shot me a text and asked me if I was interested in Miami, and of course I was,” Sullivan said. “I’d never been to the campus and was interested that someone was actually going to take a look at me. When I came here for a visit I just fell in love with the place, so playing New England prep school actually brought me here with the connections that I had back there.”
After his redshirt year, Sullivan was ready to contribute as a sophomore. But after dressing for three of Miami’s first four games in 2014-15, he was shut down with a recurring groin injury.
“It was just so frustrating to come so close, to being in the lineup again, and all in the sudden you have to take your foot off the gas pedal and go back to square one,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan logged just nine games his sophomore season, picking up a lone assist in the best-of-3 home playoff series vs. Western Michigan.
Wingels, a defenseman himself and brother of Ottawa Senators forward Tommy Wingels, tried to help Sullivan through his transitional period.
“I think he had a unique experience at Boston College, and he lost some confidence there,” Wingels said. “And I was just telling him that he needs to play his game. Boston College is a great hockey school – they have the history that they have, and he was clearly good enough to be able to commit there – so it was just a matter of getting his confidence back, because he clearly has it in him to be a good player at this level.
“It’s never fun to lose your confidence as a player, because that’s something that’s very difficult to get back. You just have to fight through it sometimes, and it might take longer than you’d hoped.”
Junior year started off with plenty of promise, as Sullivan scored his first college goal in the season opener vs. Providence, juking a defender in the slot before burying a top-shelf wrister.
“I kind of blacked out to be honest with you,” Sullivan said. “We were playing Providence, too – my whole family went to Providence, it was down to Providence and Miami – so it was nice to get a goal against them.”
But after going under the knife for the fourth time for his groin injury, Sullivan said he tried to come back too soon, as he was limited to six games the first two months. Fortunately he was healthy for the second half of 2015-16 and was in the lineup 15 times.
Last summer was the first in three years that Sullivan did not require off-season surgery, but he still had trouble getting back on the ice. He did not dress for five of the RedHawks’ first eight games last fall.
“It was definitely frustrating,” Sullivan said. “Everyone’s got to pay their dues, and I think I definitely have, but it’s something where you put your nose to the grindstone and work hard every day, do what you need to do, and finally I’m back in the lineup and hopefully making a positive impact and helping us win some hockey games.”
His attitude and hard work eventually paid off. Finally, nearly four years after transferring from Boston College, the search for more ice time that drove him to Oxford is coming to fruition.
Sullivan has played in 20 consecutive games and has three assists, all in his last nine contests.
And that confidence that earned him an NHL draft pick and a spot on Boston College’s blue line is finally back.
“For me, confidence is really key,” Sullivan said. “I rely so much on my skating and my mobility – not feeling that pain down there. Even when it was heeled, I would kind of mentally expect to feel that pain. It’s just crazy how much of a mental effect being injured has on your entire body. Now I’m at the point where that’s not a factor any more. I feel like the old Colin Sullivan again.”
He picked up helpers in back-to-back games for the first time in his Miami career on Dec. 31 at Ohio State and Jan. 6 vs. St. Cloud State. Sullivan also earned an assist on Willie Knierim’s game winner vs. Western Michigan on Jan. 28 with a well-placed stretch pass.
“It’s taking me back to high school when I’m totally healthy and I’m having fun playing again,” Sullivan said. “There was a stretch mentally where I’d come back for a couple of games and I’d get hurt again, and I’d come back for a couple of games and I’d get hurt again. I was never 100 percent. Now that I’m back on track, I’m on cloud nine right now.”
Making Sullivan even more useful to the team is his ability to play forward. He has been listed on the fourth line several times this season, enabling the team to dress a seventh blueliner.
“Any way that I can help the team,” Sullivan said. “If Coach wants me to strap on the pads and go in play in net, I’ll gladly do that. If he wants me to sit in the corner and stand on my head for three hours, I’ll do that too. Whatever it’s going to take to help the team, and I can take a couple of faceoffs, and be a (fourth-line forward) and give the top-line guys a little break, and go out and do that too, yeah, definitely.”
Sullivan and classmates Wingels and Justin Greenberg have become close friends at Miami, and both said one of his best personality attributes is his sense of humor.
“When (Sullivan) transferred here he was sort of in between classes for a little bit while his credits were figured out, and he ultimately got slotted into my class, which is great because we got to spend another year with him,” Wingels said. “He’s a great guy – he’s probably one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, and there’s never a dull time when you’re around him.”
Both Wingels and Greenberg have gone through their share of injury issues as well, and Sullivan’s positive attitude has helped them deal with their respective issues.
“Even with right now, with me being hurt (lower-body injury), he’s so positive,” Greenberg said. “He’s going to be a groomsman in my wedding, we’re so close. We do everything together. He’s just a great guy.”
Greenberg said he also noticed the improvement in Sullivan’s game as the months have passed since his injury.
“This year, it’s not just that he’s gotten in the lineup, but he’s contributing and playing well,” Greenberg said. “Making great plays and he’s learned to defend with his feet, and he’s really made an impact – in my opinion – when he’s played, since I’ve been watching. I tend to watch him more since I’m so close with him and I think he’s played great this year.”
Sullivan is also a favorite among his hockey peers, according to Greenberg.
“He would do anything for anyone on this team,” Greenberg said. “If you went through the locker room, there’s not one guy that say they don’t love Sully. He’s the best. I can’t say enough good things about him, and I’m sure most people wouldn’t be able to either.”
Now healthy, Sullivan would like to continue playing hockey after he graduates this spring. He is a history major with a minor in entrepreneurship, boasting a 3.3 grade-point average.
But in addition to his ultimate pursuit of a traditional job, Sullivan plans on joining the military for four-plus years, and is especially interested in special forces.
“I want to serve my country before I reap the benefits from it,” Sullivan said. “I think that whole lifestyle and the aspect of being on a team – and those guys are super-competitive guys, high-octane guys – I just want to be around that. It’s going to be similar to here, same exact kind of guys, Division I athletes. I just think that’s something that I would really enjoy.”
Though everything hasn’t worked out as Sullivan had originally planned when he moved here from New England, transferring to Miami is something he has never regretted.
“If I could do it all over again, Miami is definitely the place where I’d want to go,” Sullivan said. “Coming from out east, you don’t hear about Miami University – everybody thinks I play hockey in Miami, Florida – which is interesting. Coming out here, it’s all cornfields and farmland, and the minute I drove down High Street, I said, mom, dad, this is where I want to be, this is the right fit.”
OXFORD, Ohio – Jay Williams’ career at Miami already had to be considered a successful one through his first three seasons.
He played a major role in the RedHawks’ regular season championship in the final year of the CCHA his freshman campaign, and he led Miami to an NCHC Tournament title in 2014-15.
But Williams allowed seven goals vs. Providence in this season’s opener before being pulled in the third period, miring him with an 8.70 goals-against average, and he saw action in just two more games the next three months.
As a result, Williams used Christmas break to reevaluate his priorities.
“It was certainly frustrating,” Williams said. “I think that Christmas break came at a really good time for me personally this year just to kind of get away from it and to get home and spend some time with my family. I had the approach that was going to come (back) and regardless of what happened with playing – I figured my hockey career will be over after this year anyway, and I’ll move on – so if I have three months left of doing this with a group of guys that I love, I’m just going to enjoy every day and try to get better and try to make the most of it because you don’t get these days back.”
Due to an on-ice blow up and subsequent suspension of senior goalie Ryan McKay – who played nearly every minute of the first half this season – Williams was relegated into full-time starter mode and has been in net for all but 39 minutes since.
And Miami and Williams have thrived with him between the pipes.
Despite being swept by Minnesota-Duluth last weekend, Miami is 9-5 in its last 14 games as it recovered from a 5-10-1 start, and in the team’s final home series of this regular season, Williams became the first goalie in RedHawks history to shut a team out in a two-game weekend series.
“Jay’s our guy – he’s been playing awesome,” senior forward and captain Sean Kuraly said. “We expect a lot from Jay. He’s good in practice, he’s a highly-touted kid, and just a really good teammate is a reason why the team is doing well.”
Williams is from McLean, Va., right across the border from Washington D.C. The mid-Atlantic region is not known for producing significant hockey talent, but Williams went to a Washington Capitals game on his eighth birthday and has been a rink rat since.
“I was hooked,” Williams said. “The next day, I found an old pair of rollerblades and a make-shift stick and a crushed Coke can and kind of never looked back from there.”
Williams said as badly as he wanted to play hockey, his mother, Rosie, made him take skating lessons for a year before playing competitively.
“She was like, you’re not playing hockey until you learn how to skate,” Williams said. “At the time I was miserable, but obviously looking back on it I feel like it’s something that’s helped me.”
Soon after he started playing, Williams said he was given a book on goaltending and he was fascinated with the equipment. But he had to sell his parents on the concept.
Finally they caved.
With goalie pads being pricey and kids growing out of their equipment on an annual basis, his parents wanted to trade in his first set for bigger pads, but Williams wouldn’t let them.
He told them that they would end up in the hockey Hall of Fame.
“I was dreaming big when I was nine years old – I had high aspirations,” Williams said. “I think they’re still somewhere (around the house). I don’t think they’ll going to quite make it to the Hall of Fame, but there will definitely be some sentimental value there. They’ll definitely be something that I keep around for the rest of my life.”
In 2009, Williams was 15 and had never attended a collegiate game.
His first one? Miami’s NCAA national championship game at the nearby Verizon Center, during which the RedHawks surrendered two goals in the final minute and another in overtime to lose, 4-3 in ultra-dramatic fashion.
And yet Williams still ultimately chose Oxford.
“For whatever reason, I was really pulling for them there, and the following summer I was in a goalie camp with Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp, and I got to skate with them and be with them,” Williams said. “And then the USA Hockey camp with Trags (assistant coach Nick Petraglia). It was the first visit I came on and I kind of fell in love right away, and I felt a strong connection and a bond. Everywhere else I went I was kind of comparing it to here. They offered and I knew right away this is where I wanted to go – I’m just fortunate that it worked out.”
His juniors experience was turbulent. Selected third overall in the USHL Futures draft at age 15, Williams went 7-10-2 with a mercurial 3.49 goals-against average and an .891 save percentage with Waterloo his first season.
In 2011-12 he was 11-5-4, 2.62 and .904 but was traded to last-place Sioux Falls at the deadline. He finished 2-8-2, 3.78 and .882 in 12 games there.
“Looking back on it, it’s certainly not how you would’ve wanted it to go, it wasn’t ideal,” Williams said. “First year, kind of up and down, adjusting, and then my second year started out great and kind of fizzled. Sioux Falls, who at the time were in last place, (was) a team that wasn’t in a great spot and a lot of guys had kind of packed it in. You learn from it all and I believe everything happens for a reason, and I guess I wouldn’t change anything.”
Senior forward Alex Gacek knew Williams from when the two played in New England prep schools, and along with senior defenseman Matthew Caito, the trio immediately bonded upon arriving in Oxford.
“Both of those guys have made my transition here real easy,” Gacek said. “I talked about how nervous I was coming in, and they really softened everything up and helped me mature as well.”
Gacek and Williams also shared a not-so-memorable juniors experience. Gacek was thriving before blowing his knee out, and then he was rushed back, stunting his recovery.
“We were in kind of similar situations coming into school,” Gacek said. “(We) needed help building our confidence and just our mental state. He’s worked really hard at it, and I think now it’s showing up in his play and how he carries himself on and off the ice.”
Williams averaged just 26 games and logged fewer than 3,000 minutes in two full seasons in the USHL.
Then he headed to Oxford along with McKay, who had won Goalie of the Year with Green Bay his final season in that league as he led his team to a regular season title and a Clark Cup, the USHL’s championship trophy.
The pair rotated the first couple of weeks, but when McKay was injured in a game at Michigan, Williams shifted to a full-time role.
He beat the Wolverines the next night and won five of eight before McKay returned.
Williams and McKay alternated much of the season, and Williams tallied a 12-5-3 record, a 1.94 GAA and .924 save percentage in his rookie campaign.
“(The coaches) always said they want to have two guys that they can depend on, and two guys that can play – they had years where they rotated Connor and Cody up until the Frozen Four,” Williams said. “Certainly (McKay) had won just about everything you can win. He was incredible through juniors – he’s still incredible, he’s the best goalie I’ve ever been on a team with and had the opportunity to work with, day in and day out – but I just kind tried to come in, work hard, keep my head down and when I got the opportunity to play, do the best I can to give my team the chance to win.”
The RedHawks also won the final CCHA regular season title in 2012-13.
“There’s something special about that because it’s such a large body of work that goes into it to win that,” Williams said. “With the group of guys that we had, we kind of had the underdog mentality going in because we had such a large freshman class, and nobody really gave us a chance. To be able to win that championship, win a ring in my first year at school, and feel like I was able to contribute a good amount to it, it was certainly exciting and that group of guys you’ll remember forever, you share that bond.”
Sophomore year was forgettable for Miami overall, including the goalies. Williams recorded a 5-7 record, and his GAA and save percentage reverted to 3.30 and .882, respectively.
“Sophomore year, it was tough,” Williams said. “You learn a lot during those tough years about preparation, and really just the competition from Year 1 to Year 2. No disrespect at all to the teams we played the first year, but the NCHC with six teams in the national tournament, there’s no weekend you can take for granted. There’s so much parity and the margin for error is so, so small. A bad goal, a bad mistake, you used to be able to outscore that, and now you can’t.”
But he was rejuvenated in 2014-15, notching a 19-8 record and allowing just 2.04 goals per game, and his save percentage ended up at .917.
Williams was also in net for the stretch run, including the semifinal and final wins in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff, as Miami won its first tournament title in the newly-formed conference.
And his five shutouts that season tied him with Knapp and Reichard for the school’s single-season record.
“Last year, again, was a special year because we were able to win a championship with those guys,” Williams said. “Especially with the senior class that my whole class was close with for three years because they were such a large part of the team. It was cool to send them out like that and to be a part of it.”
This year, Williams is 10-7-1 with a 2.41 GAA, .909 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. But heading into the break, he had a 5.35 goals-against average and a save percentage of just .812 to accompany an 0-2 record.
Since? He’s 10-5-1, 1.97 and .924.
“You can see now that he’s calm, cool and collected, and now that he’s got his confidence behind him, there’s no doubt that he’s one of the best goalies in the country, and he’s playing like it right now,” Gacek said. “It’s been great to watch. That’s what the big thing about The Brotherhood is, is that you get to see not only yourself grow but everyone else on the team, and Jay’s a perfect example of that.”
Williams will leave Miami with his name etched in several places on the team’s career leaders list. His 46 wins and nine shutouts both tie him for fourth all-time, he is fourth in GAA (2.32) and sixth in save percentage (.910).
“The biggest thing I look at as a goalie is trying to help your team win games and to win championships, and I think to say that you were part of two championship teams in four years is something that not a lot of guys can say,” Williams said. “It’s a testament to the rest of the guys and the coaching staff and the work that we’ve put in throughout the week and the summer and the off-season. If you told me this is where I’d be, I’d be thrilled with that, freshman year.”
But there’s more to Williams than just his statistics. His enthusiasm on the ice rubs off on his teammates, and even when he’s on the bench he’s one of the first to congratulate fellow players.
“I think we embody a little bit of that when he’s in the net,” Kuraly said. “He brings such energy and enthusiasm every day, but especially you can see it on game days. Definitely something the team feeds off of.”
His postgame celebrations are legendary, as he seems to have a secret greeting for each player that meets him in front of the crease after wins.
“Almost everyone on the team has a handshake with him or a little saying that they say, so he’s a spark plug for us, even though he’s a goalie – usually it’s a little different, it’s a (skater) – but Jay’s a great team guy that we need, and our success is really pivoted around him, going forward,” Gacek said.
Off the ice, Williams appears a bit too normal for a goalie, but Gacek can attest that he does possess some of those strange netminder attributes.
“Jay can be quirky at times, he can be serious at times – whatever the situation calls for, he can adapt to it,” Gacek said. “That’s why I think he’s one of the big favorites in the locker room.
“He’s a character. Jay’s the type of kid that you could go to about anything. If it’s serious or if you need someone to pick you up, he’s the one to do it. He’s a real personable guy and he’s definitely one of my best friends. I love him to death and he’s just a great all-around guy.”
He will also depart Oxford with a degree in finance this spring. Williams was named to the NCHC All-Academic Team last month with a 3.38 GPA.
He will look into playing professionally after this season but is currently focused on enjoying his waning days at Miami.
Whether he goes pro in hockey or the business field after this season, he has set a high bar for the incoming freshmen goalies in 2016-17, both on and off the ice, and Williams has loved every minute he’s spent in Oxford.
“It’s been everything you could ask for in a college experience,” Williams said. “Everywhere you go, recruiting visits, they try to sell the program, sell the experience, sell everything, but to just hear from all of the older guys and all of the alumni who’ve played here how special the four years are. Even some of our worst, darkest moments in four years are things we’re able to laugh about now with the staff and the guys. We always joke about how we got thumped – 9-2 at North Dakota my sophomore year – that they ran out of fireworks in the third period, so even something like that is something you can laugh about. Just the whole experience: The friends I’ve made, the relationships I have, the opportunity to play against the best teams in the country and to have some success as well as develop in the classroom, it’s been incredible.”