by Jashvina Shah
The moment Colin Bilek’s leg broke, he thought he was never meant to play junior hockey.
“I feel like this is a one in a million thing,” Bilek says.
Bilek wanted to play college hockey since he was a child watching the Great Lakes Invitational — comprised of Michigan, Michigan Tech, Michigan State and a fourth school — with his father, Brian. Back then, Brian pointed to the ice and told Colin that would be him someday.
“He’s got such a love and passion for the game that the way he plays, the way he practices, the stuff that he does beyond the ice to make himself better,” Brian says.
“When he was watching the game he was just in awe of the speed and the skill set, and I told him, you keep working the way you are and I have no doubt that we’ll be watching you someday out there.”
So when Colin graduated from Brighton high school in Michigan, he wanted to play in the NAHL. Unable to make the league, he ended up with the Rochester Jr. Americans of the USPHL, where he hadn’t even played in a full game before breaking his leg.
“They thought that I actually tore my ACL, so when they told me that, I immediately started crying because I’m like I’m done for the whole year,” Colin said. “But then they did X-rays and they figured out that I broke my femur actually.”
As Colin later discovered, the injury was a blessing.
He elected to stay with his team instead of return home. Colin conducted his physical therapy with the team trainer, who also happened to be a doctor. He traveled with the team and watched them play each game, giving him a different perspective.
What stood out to him was the speed.
“Watching your own teammates and your roommates playing, you really get to see how fast the game is and what plays should’ve been made, what plays shouldn’t have been made, and really how fast you need to think the game,” Colin says.
“That’s one of my biggest attributes, is how I think the game. You really learn how to develop into a quicker thinker and really get to fine tune the game and watch film. Watching hockey I think is the best way to become a better player.”
That helped Colin over the last 26 games of the season after his return, where he potted 20 points and caught an NAHL team’s attention in April of 2015.
Bryan Erikson, the future general manager for the new Northeast Generals, slated to open operations in the NAHL in 2016-17, was watching one of Colin’s USPHL games. He was there to watch a different player, but couldn’t help noticing Colin.
“I kept noticing one kid and it wasn’t the kid I was there to watch. I keep looking down and my notebook, and I’m like who’s this kid? So Colin Bilek’s name just kept coming up, because every time I watched, he was making a play,” Erikson says.
“He’s not the prettiest package, it doesn’t wrap up as all smooth and sexy as some kids do, but he’s just a very, very hard worker. He just kept making plays and making plays and jumped out at me repeatedly, and at that moment I kind of realized that we were going to target him as one of our first tenders at our new North American Hockey League team.”
So Colin joined the Generals in the team’s inaugural season. His teammate and captain broke his leg, so Colin served as a captain on a team that finished the season 4-53-3.
“He was the captain of a four-win team. And the adversity that he faced, one it’s hard having four wins, it’s almost like we had to try to lose that many games,” Erikson says.
“Colin did such an amazing job of keeping all the kids together in a direction pointing forward, kept their spirits up. We actually had a really, really fun year last year for a team that didn’t have success on the ice, and most of that’s thanks to Colin.”
Colin finished with 40 points, 24th amongst rookie skaters. The ’97 served as a captain for the 2017-18 season, helping the Generals to 29 wins and a playoff spot. He ranked 19th in the league with 50 points.
“His hockey IQ is so elite, his anticipation is so good that he makes up for any of the short fallings he might have,” Erikson says. “He’s not a bad skater by any means, he’s got good feet, he does a good job. It’s just one of those areas of weakness that he has.”
Erikson said of the five skills needed to be a good Division I player, Colin possesses four of those skills at a nine out of 10. The only struggle is with skating, a fact that Colin — who has worked on his footwork and speed in the offseason — acknowledges.
“I’m not the fastest player and I never will be. I know that. So I play to my strengths, and my strengths are my shot, getting to good areas to put pucks in the net,” Colin says. “Because I’m not a burner, I’m not going to be able to burn kids wide. I’m a kid that goes to the net, I find really greasy goals, but if I’m at a soft spot and I get the puck, I feel like I can score the majority of the time.”
Colin’s success in the NAHL earned attention from Army, Air Force, Fairbanks, Niagara and some Division III schools.
Colin’s dad, Brian, served in the Air Force. His older brother is in Air Force training. And his younger brother, just graduating from high school, will also go into the Air Force. But Colin, despite his family history, didn’t feel he was a service academy person.
But a coach convinced him to visit West Point.
“When he got to the front entrance of West Point, he called me. And he goes, ‘Dad oh my god this place is incredible.’ And he hadn’t even gone on his tour yet. And I said, ‘Yeah buddy, it is,’” Brian says.
“He said, ‘I didn’t think I was that guy, but I am. I want to serve.’”
Enamored by the coaching staff, campus, education and his newfound desire to serve the country, Bilek committed. He will matriculate to Army in the fall of 2018.
“To me, Colin is the great lesson to kids that play college or want to play college Division I hockey. He’s been told no for so many years, that he’s not a Division I hockey player while his teammates have been made offers or made commitments or even been drafted in the NHL,” Erikson says.
“He’s just done everything that myself and my head coach Joe Lovell have ever asked of him, to work hard and put himself in the position to make this come true. We know that coach [Brian] Riley at West Point got an unbelievable kid, that he got an unbelievable hockey player who’s going to make an amazing impact there as a person and a player for four years.
Photo Credit: Hickling Images