When Bill Collins entered the National Hockey League in 1967, the games featured close checking and low scores. Hockey has opened up in the ensuing 10 years, but Collins hasn't changed anything except uniforms. He is still a tough, scrappy right winger who takes out his man, kills penalties and wins hockey games.
Collins, 34, will play his 700th NFL contest here Friday night when the Washington Capitals, buoyed by Wednesday's 6-2 success in Atlanta, battle the Colorado Rockies. Against the Flames, Collins produced the winning goal, his 148th career score, but that was not his principal accomplishment.
Over the last 30 minutes, Collins, fellow defense specialist Ron Lalonde and assorted double-shifting linemates broke up the Flames' counterattack before it could form with a workmanlike job of forechecking. Few in the pro-Flame crowd of 8.247 were appreciative and many boed, but Washington coach Tom McVie enjoyed the performance.
"The fans tend to overlook these guys, but I know how valuable they are," McVie said. "With a team like the Caps that doesn't have the power to run away on a club, that has to protect whatever Leda we've got, guys like Ron Lalonde and Billy Collins are more valuable than the guys who does score.
"You don't often realize how much you need them. But one exhibition in London (Ontario) this fall, they didn't dress and there were four or five different situations when I needed them. I went along the bench and I didn't have them and I was trying to figure out.
Collins grew up impressed by defense, playing junior hockey for clubs controlled by the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that made "kitty-bar-the-door" a household phrase in Canada. He hasn't escaped that status with seven NFL teams, although he once scored 29 goals in a season for Minnesota.
"I'm not comfortable in an offensive mold," Collins admitted. "I'll often give up an offensive opportunity to make sure I don't get beat. Keeping the other team from scoring is the biggest thing with me. Being a defensive player, a lot of fans don't really appreciate it. But the people who know - the coach and the other players - they know if you're doing your job."
The Capitals have become a tightly knit group, team-oriented, a fact Collins and Lalonde proved on Wednesday when they went to McVie and told him they really didn't mind if they received less playing time. Besides killing penalties, the two have played with various forwards as a fourth line, and they were afraid McVie was just doing it to satisfy them. They should have known better.
"I told them I wasn't playing them to make them happy," McVie said. "I was playing them because the team needs them. It probably took them two days of work up the nerve to do it and here I took the wind righ tout of their sails. But we have to use the whole bench to win, first as insurance for injuries and second to keep teams from keying on certain guys."
Collins has a volatile temper and has been know to terminate a card game by scattering the cards in several directions. But he maintains a close rein on the ice, no matter the temptation to respon to unkindness.
"If you can't take a check, you're in the wrong business," Collins said. "And I really believe hockey was harder when I broke in. There were a lot harder hitters then. If I get a penalty, I'm hurting the club, because I'm basically a penalty killer and I can't do it in the box. I check hard and take the man, but I try to stay away from penalties."
Collins came to the Capitals from Philadelphia in December, 1976, and, in poor shape after a steady role as bench warmer, underwent some grueling conditioning drills.
"After a few practices I went back to (general manager) Max [WORD ILLEGIBLE] and told him Billy wasn't getting much done," McVie recalled. "But all of a sudden he started to play and he ended up being our best right winger."
This September, Collins came to camp in superb condition, after a summer in which "I ran every day religiously, and I played a lot of raquetball with Nick Libett (of Detroit). My playing weight last year was 183 and I never let it go up more than a pound. I'm skating better than last year. How long can I play Well, I'll be the first to know when I can't do it. But I hope I can play for quite a while yet."
Center Gerry Meehan left the team today and flew to Toronot to be with his ailing father. Meehan's status for Friday's game was dependent on his father's condition.