Nick Blankenburg passed his first test as the Columbus Blue Jacket at the end of Monday’s practice.
His team lost the game in a small area at the end of their first NHL practice, meaning half the CBJ team had to skate laps. After the first few rounds, the puck was placed on the blue line and head coach Brad Larsen pummeled Blankenburg by throwing it 120 feet down the ice into the open net.
A mark, the practice was over. A miss and the losing team would have to take another lap down the length of the ice.
No pressure, right? Luckily, the former University of Michigan captain dipped his shot into the open net, much to the delight of his gassed teammates.
“I think I heard Voracek say, ‘Please do it,'” Blankenburg said afterwards, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s exactly what he said, but I’m just glad I pulled it off.”
Video: Ready to Compete
With that, Blankenburg showed he belonged, which has been a struggle for the undersized (5-foot-9, 175-pound) defender his entire career. The 23-year-old from Washington, Michigan was told his whole life that he wasn’t big enough or talented enough to make it, which is why he had to take the long road to the Blues Jackets.
Blankenburg played for the much-loved Little Caesars youth teams growing up, but found himself playing at Romeo High School rather than juniors as he got older. But back-to-back 67-point seasons showed him he really had what it takes to reach the next level, and Blankenburg devoted himself to the sport, even once taking a job as a Zamboni driver at a local ice rink to chase . his dream according to a profile from MLive.com.
It ended up working, although it still wasn’t easy. An impressive U-18 major midget season with Victory Honda in Michigan – where he switched from forward to defense – got him a chance, but it was in Alberta, Canada, of all places, with the Okotoks Oilers.
A solid season in one of the top Tier II leagues in Canada then earned him a shot at home, and Blankenburg continued in Michigan. After three solid seasons with the Wolverines, he not only received a scholarship last season, he was named captain of a team loaded with first-round picks, and Blankenburg finished that season with career highs in goals (14 ) and in points (29) with a UM team that made the Frozen Four.
“I don’t really think a lot of people expected me to be here,” he said. “Just being here for me personally and believing in myself and having that belief has really helped me along the way. I think the most important thing is to compete and work hard every day. , whether it’s playing hockey in high school or midget major or Michigan or even here, I just try to compete and work as hard as I can and have fun because if I’m not having fun, why am I playing, you know? That’s the most important thing.
And ultimately, that may be why the Blue Jackets were so drawn to Blankenburg, because it’s pretty clear he couldn’t have gotten this far without a powerful competitive engine.
“It was interesting to listen to him talk about his story, his journey, how he got here today,” head coach Brad Larsen said Monday. “I had heard it, but I like to hear it from him first. It’s a really cool story. He had to work for everything he has. He didn’t make it here today and didn’t realize he was small I think he knows he is small I don’t think that’s new to him I think that’s probably what made him the player that it is.
“And going into a program like Michigan and wearing a letter in your third year, being captain in your fourth year, leading the team — there’s a lot of high-end prospects and draft picks on that team. That in says a lot I think about his character and who he is, how he handles his business, I’m really intrigued to see him play.
Although Blankenburg had the chance to play with some top players at UM, he admitted there were already some welcome moments in the NHL during his early days with the Blue Jackets.
“It’s really nice to call home and have my brother ask me how it was to meet Patrick Laine and stuff like that,” he said. “It was pretty cool today, to come across a 2-on-0 and think in my head, ‘OK, I’m passing it to Laine, put it on on his tape.’ Stuff like that is funny enough that I’ll tell my brother or my parents when I call them. They will laugh about it. I just try to enjoy every moment.”
Blankenburg said he was lucky enough to turn pro a year ago, but decided to return to UM to serve as captain of a team that made it all the way to the Frozen Four. The conversations with the Blue Jackets started around Christmas and he chose to sign with Columbus because of the discussions he had with the front office and their vision of what he can become as a player.
Don’t expect to lose the chip on his shoulder that got him here.
“A big part of my game is about playing physically and not being afraid to play physically,” Blankenburg said. “I think it comes from just growing up and having this chip on my shoulder and having an older brother who would throw me around in the basement playing ministicks or playing basketball. Obviously when you’re the little kid in the neighborhood or the little kid in school, you have to fight for whatever you get.
“It was a big thing growing up for me that I’ve been able to learn and take with me throughout my career so far. I definitely intend to keep doing that.”