Goalie's career saved by a glove: Has 'circus-freak appeal'
Page: A3 , Section: News
Byline: James Mirtle
Source: National Post
Dan Blackburn was used to being an acrobat, but it might take a little while to adjust to being a carnival act.
Mr. Blackburn joined the minor-league Victoria Salmon Kings last week, and as the only goaltender to play wearing two blockers, he has attracted a lot of attention in the British Columbia capital.
"This sounds kind of strange, but it's almost like circus-freak appeal, you know, 'Come and see the goalie with two blockers,' " Mr. Blackburn said. "I feel a little on display like that. But I think there's just been a lot of interest to see what the talk is about."
The source of the fuss is a new blocker-catcher hybrid glove Mr. Blackburn now wears in place of a typical trapper. An injury to his left shoulder prevents the 21-year-old netminder from rotating his glove hand into an upright catching position, meaning a traditional glove is of little use. The goaltender's limitations prompted some creative retooling by New York Rangers training staff, who developed the hybrid glove, and the NHL subsequently approved its use due to Mr. Blackburn's disability.
And when Mr. Blackburn began practising with the Salmon Kings last week, the unique piece of equipment generated a lot of curiosity. Tickets for the Salmon Kings past three ECHL games were snapped up and dozens of media outlets clamoured to talk to the former NHL wunderkind.
"It's been crazy, all the media requests," Mr. Blackburn said. "There have been newspapers, radio stations and TV stations. I've been interviewed on Sportsnet a couple of times."
Not that Mr. Blackburn isn't used to the spotlight.
When the Camrose, Alta., native arrived in the NHL three years ago as an 18-year-old, he became the third-youngest netminder to win a game. And after playing 63 games over two seasons, the former 10th overall pick (2001) was touted as the long-term solution for the struggling Rangers.
Then a freak injury derailed Mr. Blackburn's career.
The goalie pinched a nerve in his shoulder while lifting weights in the summer of 2003. The injury was serious enough that he missed all of the following NHL season. Then, while rehabilitating for a comeback last August, he aggravated the injury, separating the shoulder and causing irreparable damage to the nerve.
After numerous unsuccessful surgeries and nearly two years, Mr. Blackburn was told he may never regain full use of his arm.
It was with that thought still sinking in that he suited up in a game with Victoria on Friday night.
"It was exciting," he said. "After not being on the ice for such a long time, you almost feel like it's not really going on. It takes a couple of games of where you're out there and you're in a game again."
The road back to pro hockey has been a difficult one for Mr. Blackburn, who at one point went more than year without stepping on to the ice.
"[It was] a lot of long hours at the gym, long hours on the ice by myself in New York, just working on getting my movement better, improving myself so I could be as prepared as possible when I came back."
After being away from the game for so long, Mr. Blackburn also began to feel isolated from his team. He still attended Rangers' home games last year but stopped going on the road trips.
As Mr. Blackburn is the first modern goaltender to play wearing two blockers, people are tentative in saying how he will fare playing with the injury long-term.
"He's got a disability, and he's going to see where he can go now [with the injury]," his agent, Mark Hall, said prior to watching Mr. Blackburn play last week.
"As they say, the proof is in the pudding."
The pudding, it seems, is just fine. Victoria lost 3-2 in Mr. Blackburn's debut -- a loss that added another notch to the team's league-record 20-game winless skid -- but he was in goal the following night when the team snapped the cumbersome streak. Mr. Blackburn made a few highlight-reel saves in a 5-4 shootout victory.
The Salmon Kings can certainly use the help. Victoria is in last place with a 8-32-5 record and has allowed more than four goals a game. In three games so far, Mr. Blackburn has stopped the bleeding a little, letting 10 pucks past and posting a save percentage of .899.
The one-time phenom says playing with two blockers has forced him to adapt how he plays goal.
"The way I used to play is I used to basically just perform based on athleticism. I never really had a goalie coach growing up, so I wasn't a positional goalie. It was just all athleticism and reaction.
"Now I'm trying to play a positional game so I don't have to reach for the puck like I used to."
But it's not just a change in style that has come over the young netminder. Mr. Blackburn says his attitude toward playing the game has also changed.
"You do realize that there's a lot more to life than hockey, when it has been your life and it's not there anymore. You definitely have a different outlook on everything. I always thought I wanted to make hockey a part of it again, and that's what I'm trying to do now.
"I'm a hockey player first off, and it's just natural [to want to play]. It'd be a different story, you know, if I was doing something else."
• Photo: Ch Tv / Former NHLer Dan Blackburn permanently injured his shoulder and now wears a hybrid glove. "I feel a little on display like that."