Gilbert Collins is Home

Sundogs center is 1 of the 1st top-line players to emerge from Valley’s youth hockey program

by, Dave Vest

The Arizona Republic

Apr. 24, 2008 12:00 AM

PRESCOTT VALLEY – Given he was born in Payson, grew up in the Southeast Valley and attended Gilbert High School, it’s fitting that Dusty Collins is playing his first year of professional hockey in Prescott Valley for the Arizona Sundogs, a Phoenix Coyotes affiliate two levels below the NHL.

Collins, 23, is a third-line center for the Sundogs, who are one victory from reaching the Central Hockey League championship series in their second season. Leading 3-2, Arizona plays Laredo in Game 6 of the Southern Conference Finals on Friday in Texas.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Collins said of chasing his NHL dream so close to home these days. “On the weekends, I usually have five or six family members or friends come up (to watch). It’s fun to have people you know watch you play.”

Collins, who still calls Gilbert home, has been playing hockey since he was 5 and was one of the first players to emerge from the state’s talent pool. The NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning drafted him in 2004, but Collins stayed at Northern Michigan University for four seasons (2003-04 to 2006-07).

Last summer, the Coyotes invited Collins, a free agent, to attend their American Hockey League affiliate’s training camp in San Antonio. After watching him play, Coyotes officials encouraged him to sign with the Sundogs so it would be easier for the team to chart his progress.

Collins said OK and has displayed offensive skills for Arizona that were not utilized during his college career. In 137 games at NMU, Collins notched just 11 goals and 14 assists. In 74 games with the Sundogs this season, including the playoffs, he has 25 goals and 32 assists.

“Dusty came from college and I think he was put in a box a little bit (there) where he wasn’t able to create too much,” Sundogs coach Marco Pietroniro said. “Coming here, he’s grown a lot and matured a lot as a player, and now he’s able to get out of that box a little bit. He’s brought a lot to our team. ”

Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving, who has attended about a half-dozen Sundogs games this season, said Collins is one of several players Phoenix is monitoring.

“When we saw him at (San Antonio’s) camp, we could see he could skate well and he had decent (offensive) skills,” Treliving said. “His success offensively this year is not that surprising to us.”

The Coyotes like Collins’ size – he’s 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds – but Treliving said it’s too soon to say if he’d be offered an invitation to their camp or San Antonio’s again in the fall.

“We’ll continue to monitor him and see how he finishes the year,” Treliving said.

And that’s fine by Collins.

“This is a great place for me to be right now as a first-year pro,” he said. “My ultimate goal is the NHL. It always has been and always will be. That’s something that I’ll always keep in the back of my mind. So, right now, I’m on a pretty good course.”