- Scott Burnside, NHL
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In less than two years, Dan Blackburn has gone from a teen NHL sensation to goaltending oddity.
Now comes the truly daunting part: reversing that torturous path.
As a member of the lowly Victoria (B.C.) Salmon Kings of the ECHL, Blackburn is determined to return to the NHL in spite of a shoulder disability that has forced him to relearn the position using two blockers.
"This is basically just one big experiment for me. I'm 95 percent of the same goalie I was before I got hurt. Everything is the same except my arm, and I'm determined to work around my disability," Blackburn said. "It's been a life-altering situation."
Before stepping onto the ice with the Salmon Kings last month, Blackburn's last start was the final game of the NHL's 2002-03 regular season, a 5-4 loss to Montreal on April 5. During that game he looked no different than any other goaltender, sporting a catching mitt on his left hand and a rectangular blocker on his stick hand.
Blackburn was a member of the NHL's all-rookie team in 2001-02 and participated in the YoungStars competition at All-Star weekend that year. But the following September he injured his shoulder lifting weights during training camp. The injury was exacerbated when Blackburn dove after a puck during his first on-ice session.
"And that was it," the 21-year-old said.
Nerve surgery in April 2004 was deemed a success. But as he waited for the shoulder to return to full strength, to give him the full range of motion he'd enjoyed before, Blackburn felt something missing. When it came to reacting to shots high to his glove side, he couldn't make his arm respond as it had when he was being feted as the future of New York Rangers goaltending.
"It was very slow and awkward," Blackburn said.
The nerves that run through the shoulder muscle had failed to regenerate.
"It just never took," Blackburn said. "It's wasted away; it's deteriorated."
The atrophy has left a noticeable indentation in Blackburn's back, "like I'd been hit in the back with a baseball bat," he said.
The natural movement for a goaltender making a high-glove save is to rotate the catching hand so the palm is facing outward as the arm is being raised, a movement now foreign to Blackburn. The condition left Blackburn two choices find another way of approaching his position. Or find something else to do with his life.
Blackburn chose the first option. In a meeting several months ago, Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather came up with the idea that Blackburn could use two blockers.
"Slats said, 'Why don't you try playing with two blockers?' " Blackburn recalled.
The Rangers' equipment manager secured a left-handed blocker, then attached the webbing and pocket from a catching glove to its underside. The modification allows Blackburn to direct high shots without rotating his hand while catching low shots and smothering the puck at his feet without awkwardness.
"It was a different muscle being used so it's like I wasn't injured," Blackburn said.
After getting NHL approval to use the glove, Blackburn then had to find a team. Though he had been working out with the Rangers' ECHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, a limited number of visas for non-American players led Blackburn to Victoria.
The Salmon Kings, 11-45-5, should provide Blackburn with more than enough data for his blocker experiment. When he led the Salmon Kings to a shootout victory over the Fresno Falcons in his second start, it marked the first victory in 21 games for Victoria. During the shootout Blackburn stopped five of seven penalty shots.
So far Blackburn is 3-9 with a 3.54 GAA and .892 save percentage.
"I'm probably my own worst critic, so I'll never really be happy," he said. "It's been what I expected. I had to learn basically to play net backwards."
Salmon Kings coach and general manager Bryan Maxwell said Blackburn's presence has calmed the team's defense.
"He's quiet in the net, square to the puck, no scrambling. I think we have a quality person first and a quality goaltender as well," Maxwell said. "He's NHL caliber, no question."
If Blackburn was nervous about taking his first, crucial step toward reclaiming what was once a given, it is hidden beneath a calm, well-spoken exterior.
"Surprisingly, I wasn't too nervous," he said. "I was fairly relaxed and taking everything in and enjoying it. When you're injured, you're part of the team on paper, but you're really isolated. This is a great chance to be with the guys and have a chance to play."
The 10th pick overall in the 2001 draft, Blackburn played just four games with the Rangers' AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, before joining the Rangers full-time. When he won his first-ever NHL game on Oct. 15, 2001, Blackburn became the third-youngest goaltender in league history to do so. By ending the 2002 season with five straight wins, Blackburn became just the second goalie under age 19 to accomplish such a feat (Tom Barrasso was the other).
The following season Blackburn's teenage internship with the world's finest players continued, as he played in 32 games including 18 straight starts from early November through mid-December. The string made Blackburn just the fourth teenage goalie in NHL history to make at least 15 straight starts.
While his numbers (3.17 GAA, .890 save percentage) reflected both his inexperience and the woeful state of the Rangers' team defense, life was never better and the future never brighter for the 6-foot-1, 180-pound netminder.
"I thought I was pretty worldly at 18, playing in the NHL, living in New York," he said. "This is really about two careers for sure. It's a little strange. I've been almost a forgotten man for two years."
Forgotten indeed. Blackburn has emerged from the black hole of his injury to find himself buried alive on the Rangers' depth chart. Jason LaBarbera, last year's MVP of the American Hockey League, and Steve Valiquette, acquired from Edmonton in the Petr Nedved trade last March, are among the AHL's statistical leaders and give the Wolf Pack the best one-two goaltending tandem in the league. Throw in Swedish prospect Henrik Lundqvist, incumbent starter Mike Dunham, and media darling Al Montoya of World Junior Championship fame, picked sixth overall in the 2004 draft, and the Rangers have plenty of alternatives.
Still, Blackburn seems undeterred.
"I know that the organization has an open mind, and they're excited for me to get back on the ice," he said.
If he understands the many obstacles that stand in his way, Blackburn seems to have a healthy perspective on his situation.
"I definitely would appreciate it more this time," he said. "Everything always came so easy to me the first time. This time there's been a lot of sleepless nights just to get back to playing here in the ECHL."
One of the things Blackburn did to occupy his time was to indulge his favorite hobby, building model trains. It is a hobby he and his father, Tom, have shared since Blackburn, an only child, was 10 years old.
About once a month during the past two years, Blackburn's father, a retired high school chemistry teacher who lives in Peterborough, Ontario, flew to New York with a new segment to add to the sprawling model layout that dominates Blackburn's spare bedroom in Manhattan.
Recently, the two began deconstructing the layout, which includes scale model warehouses, homes and industrial plants along with the tracks, engines and cars, and started a new creation.
"It's not the completion but the building that's important with model trains," Tom Blackburn said.
In some ways Blackburn is applying that credo to rebuilding his hockey career.
"He doesn't mind taking the little steps it's going to take to get there," Tom Blackburn said. "He's very focused. I'm sure he's going to do it."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
9dScott Burnside and Craig Custance