Brendan Collins and his brother Patrick were enamored with the glitz of the golden dome and Notre Dame football while growing up in Rutland. They would scour the online recruiting lists to see who was on the way to South Bend to don the gold helmet.
It was hockey they really loved. Cousins of Travis Roy, the player who was paralyzed 11 seconds into his career at Boston University and now raises money for spinal cord injury through the Travis Roy Foundation, Brendan and Patrick both played hockey for Connecticut College. They wore their cousin Travis’ uniform No. 24 at the New London school.
Brendan noticed there was a void in information about hockey recruits. All of those services that catalogued players with their dimensions, strengths, weaknesses and times in the 40 simply were not readily available in hockey.
“College hockey didn’t have that. I knew there was a niche,” Collins said.
That is why he immediately saw the potential when Rutland businessman Steve Wilk approached him about a scouting service.
Wilk knew about the dearth of information in the hockey world from experience. His son, Stephen, was a hockey player who was being recruited. Wilk had a difficult time in assessing the right path for Stephen to take — college, prep school, junior hockey?
Stephen wound up playing for the Holderness School, a prep school in New Hampshire, but it wasn’t easy to get a well-founded evaluation and opinion.
The man behind Wilk Paving, Wilk saw the need and potential for a scouting service in hockey.
Collins had worked for the U.S. Hockey Report, which evaluated players for coaches and agents, but it lacked a sophisticated ranking system.
“Steve wanted to take that concept and really blow it up,” Collins said. “I thought the idea was brilliant.”
Neutralzone.net was founded in 2015 and Collins was hired as Director of Scouting.
Collins’ office is above the Wilk Paving headquarters on Route 4A in Center Rutland, but his real base of operations is a mobile office — a car, plane or hotel.
Collins spent 100 nights in a hotel in 2018.
That breakneck pace meant an amicable divorce from his wife Hannah Corkery, the former Castleton University women’s lacrosse coach who now coaches the sport at St. Lawrence University.
“It was all very cordial. We just said, ‘What are we doing?’” Collins said. “We had dinner the other night.”
Collins’ rule is if the trip is eight hours or less, he is driving. If it is more than eight hours, he is flying.
The business really gets going in September. Last September, he spent a total of three days at home.
“The busiest stretch is December through February,” Collins said.
It’s a lifestyle and a job he never foresaw while majoring in Economics & Statistics. He took his degree and worked in the investment business for Edward Jones.
He likes the stock market but other aspects of the business held no appeal.
He began doing some coaching with the Castleton University hockey program and his love still burned for the game.
Wilk gave him an opportunity that feeds his passion every day.
Patrick Collins is an attorney in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the brothers still talk hockey every so often.
“He gives advice sometimes. He has a good perspective because he is not involved but he knows the game,” Brendan Collins said.
Collins scours all of North America in search of talent. He is apt to be anywhere from New England to Minnesota to Western Canada.
All the stories you have heard about high school hockey mania in Minnesota are true, Collins said.
“If you are a hockey fan, the Minnesota high school tournament has to be a bucket list thing,” he said. “There will be 18,000 at a game. Each town shuts down. It’s just like Hoosiers. It is like that every place in the state.”
Collins knows there are short cuts that can be taken in the recruiting business. Neutral Zone has been approached about hosting combines similar to the ones staged in football.
He applauds Wilk for staying the course and doing it the way he considers to be the right way.
“My compliments to Steve. He never took the bait. He stayed true to what we are all about,” Collins said.
That means seeing players in game situations in small towns with no stoplights and braving below-zero temperatures and howling winds on the plains of Saskatchewan to see the game at all levels.
Collins is seeing players in all settings as he is scouting the drafts of various minor leagues, NCAA Division I and Division III prospects, bantams, midgets, high schools, prep schools and junior league hockey.
Wilk’s scouting business is now a 75-person organization and women hockey players are not ignored.
There is a local connection in that part of the business, too. Former Castleton University goalie Jess Cameron is the director of the women’s side of it.
Other scouts hone in on a geographic region but Collins and Cameron spread themselves across the continent.
“It is the biggest scouting business in North America and probably the world. I don’t think there is anything else like it,” Collins said.
The heart of hockey might beat the loudest in Minnesota, but the nerve center of hockey recruiting is in a most unlikely place — an upstairs office in Center Rutland.