When Dan Blackburn made the New York Rangers as a backup goaltender this past October, a collective gasp was heard throughout the Kootenays. Surprise, shock, wonderment, all were the emotions felt by Kootenay ICE fans who wondered aloud about trying to replace the young Canmore, Alberta native between the pipes for the upcoming season. A season that had Kootenay pegged for a return to a Memorial Cup that had been denied only two years prior.
As special a hockey player as Dan Blackburn is and hindsight being twenty-twenty, it makes you wonder what all the amazement was about. After all, throughout his minor hockey career, playing Tier II Junior in the AJHL at the age of fourteen against players two – four years his senior and shouldering the load of the Kootenay ICE’ run to the 2000 Memorial Cup in Halifax at the age of sixteen, it’s a wonder everybody didn’t see this coming from the start.
Always confident but never so much so, the likeable eighteen-yr-old himself couldn’t have dreamed up the success he had in a New York Rangers uniform this season. “No, I was actually really surprised it went as seamlessly as it did,” said Blackburn of the transition to pro while watching his old teammates face the Red Deer Rebels in game three of the WHL Finals. “Everything seemed to fall into place, right from the draft to training camp to the exhibition season right through to the making the team and having the regular season go so well.”
Known for its uncanny ability of eating up newcomers and spitting them out and for being the unofficial center of the universe, New York City has taken its share of young hockey players and shortened their run faster than a bad Broadway play. Through it all, Blackburn has adjusted well. “It can be pretty intimidating,” said Blackburn of the bright lights of the big city. “But I think that’s why (Ranger G.M. Glen) Sather put me with John Davidson. It’s a similar billeting situation as it was here in Cranbrook and that really helped out a lot, having people around to come home to.”
A kindred spirit of sorts, John Davidson was also a high draft pick (5th overall to St. Louis in 1973) and was the first goaltender to make the jump directly from junior to the NHL. Davidson, former Calgary Wrangler (WHL), Ranger goaltender and current color analyst for the Madison Square Garden Network took Blackburn into his home for the season, a media/player relationship almost unheard of. It enabled Blackburn to focus on what he does best, stopping pucks, away from the million distractions the Big Apple has to offer.
Only twenty-four hours lapse of flying into New York himself, Blackburn’s second morning in Manhattan saw the lives of thousands of people change forever. Just ten blocks away from the horrific events of September 11, a small-town Canadian teenager was readying himself for his first NHL training camp at Madison Square Garden. Wondering what he might have got himself into, Blackburn tried to maintain his focus on hockey but like most, found it difficult to deal with. “I didn’t have any regrets (about being in NYC) at that point, but is was scary,” said Blackburn. “I’d only been there one day and I didn’t know the city very well and it didn’t hit me as close as it did to some of the guys who’d been there ten or twenty years. Bryan Leech and Mark Messier and guys like that, they knew a lot of people who lived in the area that were really affected.”
The task before him was clear – play hard, show them what you can do and let the chips fall where they may. The conventional thinking was that the Rangers would go shopping for a proven veteran backup to longtime Ranger Mike Richter. The fact that Richter was coming off a complete knee reconstruction only pressed the need for goaltending insurance for the upcoming season.
Blackburn was the goaltender of the future. Nobody figured the first round draft pick only three months prior would make the Rangers but then again nobody also thought he’d make an impact on Junior hockey at such a young age or backstop a team to a WHL championship. Underestimating the young goaltender was becoming a habit, a bad one.
What would he have to change in order to adapt to the pro game? What would it be like to face shooters like Mark Messier, Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury, players he’d grown up watching on television? “I didn’t make any conscious adjustments,” said Blackburn. “I think the most important thing was having a chance to go to training camp and working my way up to playing in the exhibition and regular season games. The biggest thing was the guys making the extra pass. You can’t go down on a lot of the shots you would in Junior they’ll make that extra play around you.”
And Messier, et al? “It’s pretty intimidating,” said Blackburn. “I didn’t say too much at first but at the end everybody just treats everybody else like hockey players. It’s really no different than the Kootenay ICE dressing room except I’d watched these guys growing up on T.V. but hockey guys are hockey guys no matter how old they are.”
Blackburn admits that the professional level of the game is a completely different animal. The city, the style of hockey, the media – especially the New York media – and the fact that he’s earning somewhat more than the allowance he received in junior. “(The money) took awhile (to get used to) but you can kind of do whatever you want,” offered Blackburn of the paychecks with the never-ending zeroes. “Whether you want to go on a vacation somewhere or buy something you like, it’s kind of nice that you don’t have to worry about whether or not you have enough money. “(The Media’s) a little different than here with just having you and Jeff Hollick around but they (the Rangers) have guys there that’s their job to make sure you know what people are going to ask you about and to make sure that you’re comfortable about speaking in front of that many people and also being comfortable about what they are saying about you.”
Does it change the well-grounded, soft-spoken boy who was raised by his mom in a single parent household? Not as much as you’d think. The most important thing is that he’s able to give back to the person who gave so much to get him where he is today, his mom. “My mom was my biggest supporter the whole way through hockey and for me to be able to support and help her out anyway that I can is a big plus. It really makes what she did for me all the more worthwhile.”
Dan’s first year of pro wasn’t without its peaks and valleys. Going from fulfilling a dream by making the Rangers to sitting on the bench (something not seen since he was fourteen), to struggling with his consistency and an inconsistent defense in front of him, Blackburn’s year peaked with a freak cracked skull injury to Richter and the realization that he was now the starter on a club that’s trying to make the playoffs. Although the Rangers failed in that goal, success rolled his way with a five game winning streak down the stretch to end the season.
Looking ahead to this September and the fact that Richter’s an unrestricted free-agent, there’s a very real possibility the starter’s job could be his to lose. “I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen,” said Blackburn. “Hopefully they re-sign Mike (Richter). I learned a lot from him this year and he was one of my better friends on the team.”
“The fact that he doesn’t usually play back-to-back games really gives me the chance to get into 20-30 games next year. I hope that’s what happens but you never know.”
Sitting back and watching his old mates make another run at the Memorial Cup is unfamiliar territory for the former WHL Playoff MVP. You can see his desire to play when he talks about the ICE-Rebels in the finals but that being said, it doesn’t take him long to remember that he’s now playing in the ‘show’. “Yeah, I miss it. Especially since I know most of the guys on the team, its tough sitting up here watching them play. Knowing that last year I was with the guys and I could’ve been there. But what happened this year is what I really wanted to which was playing at the NHL level.”