Utah Grizzlies: Still dreaming of the NHL

Grizz coach has come a long way since serious injury

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 3 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah Grizzlies coach Kevin Colley played in 16 NHL games before a serious injury cut short his career. Now he wants to get back to the top level of hockey as a coach.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

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WEST VALLEY CITY — After toiling in hockey's minor leagues for the better part of six seasons, Kevin Colley finally got his shot to play in the National Hockey League.

He took full advantage of the opportunity.

Playing for the New York Islanders during the first half of the 2005-06 season, Colley fulfilled a lifelong dream of being an NHL player and made a memorable impression on those that watched him play. Though he didn't score a goal or record an assist in 16 appearances, Colley quickly became known around the league as a fiery, combative personality that gave fanatical effort each time he stepped on the ice.

"I went into every game like it was my last one," Colley says.

Tragically for him, that mantra turned into a reality one wintry evening almost three years ago.

With his father, Tom, watching from the stands when the Islanders hosted the Washington Capitals, Colley missed Washington defenseman Jamie Howard while going for a check and instead crashed head-first into the boards.

Colley amazingly skated off the ice under his own power, but he was subsequently rushed to the hospital, where an MRI confirmed that he had four fractured vertebrae and that doctors were going to be have to put him in a halo immediately.

Just like that, his career was finished.

Colley's career went "from being on top of the world to being so down in the dumps," he says. "As a person, you can't really prepare for that."

However, while he might not have had any preparation, the manner in which Colley has responded to the setback has been remarkable.

After recovering both physically and mentally from the horrifying injury, Colley decided to return to hockey, this time as a coach.

And now he's again trying to climb the steep mountain that leads to the NHL, starting in Utah.

A year after being named an assistant coach with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, the 29-year-old is now the head coach of the organization, and he hopes the position will prove to be the beginning of a promising coaching career that leads him back to the upper echelons of professional hockey.

By his own admission, it took Colley a while to get used to professional hockey, but after bouncing around the minor leagues for a few years, he finally started to stick.

He helped Atlantic City of the ECHL to a Kelly Cup championship in 2003 and spent the following season in the AHL with Syracuse and Worcester. That's when Bridgeport, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders, spotted him.

Colley played two full seasons with Bridgeport before impressing the Islanders enough to call him up. He made his NHL debut inside Madison Square Garden on October 27, 2005, against the New York Rangers, and even though he was subsequently sent back down to Bridgeport for a while, he figured out a way to get back up and stay up.

"I wasn't gonna let them send me back down," says Colley. "I was gonna be a good team guy and do whatever it took to win. When I got recalled, we started winning hockey games, and any time you start winning games when you're contributing, you know you're making a difference."

Colley certainly made a difference in his 16 appearances with the Islanders, and he enjoyed every single minute.

"I earned a spot every night, and it was a dream come true," he says. "I wish every kid that loves the game as much as I do could experience playing in the National Hockey League ... It was something special. I'll never forget it."

Colley remembers just about everything that happened to him on January 31, 2006, in vivid detail.

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