Wednesday, May 22, 2024 May 22, 2024
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Why a Former NHL Star is Training the Next Generation of Pro Goalies—From Dallas

An injury forced Dan Blackburn to retire from hockey. Now he’s getting on with the rest of his life.
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Sometimes, on the way to his 11th-floor apartment at the W residences in Victory Plaza, Dan Blackburn will see one of the Dallas Mavericks. A couple of the Cowboys live nearby, so sometimes it’s one of them instead. Maybe it’s one of the other athletes who has a place there, or a room at the hotel. For good reason, Blackburn tries not to dwell on moments like these. After all, there was a time, not so long ago, when he also could have drawn the same attention on his way to and from the arena.

Take that night in 2002 when he stopped a wave of scoring chances by the Dallas Stars, including a pair of highlight-reel saves on Mike Modano. The game ended with the score deadlocked at 3-3, and the next morning the New York Times praised his effort with a headline in the sports section: “After Shaky Outing, Blackburn Preserves a Tie.”

It’s hardly the clip a kid dreams of taping to his fridge, but there were many others, too, often as bittersweet: “Blackburn Is Sharp, but His Teammates Are Not” and “Blackburn Stands Out Amid Ranger Wreckage.” Back then, Blackburn was perhaps the lone bright spot on an aging New York Rangers roster, a veteran team that failed to make the playoffs every season during his brief four-year tenure. But these days, you can’t find Blackburn’s jersey anywhere on eBay. Seven years have passed since he was last paid to strap on a pair of pads. If he carried a business card now, it would read, simply, “President, GDI.”

The acronym is short for Goaltender Development Institute, a worldwide network of hockey camps headquartered in Dallas devoted to helping aspiring pros do one thing: keep the puck out of the net.

“We handle primarily goalie training, private lessons, and summer camps,” Blackburn says. He pulls a chair up to a long, flat wooden dining table, the centerpiece of his spare, pristinely decorated apartment, which also serves as his home office. At 27 years old, he still looks fit and athletically built, casually dressed in jeans and a slim-cut navy blue shirt. There is nothing ostentatious about his demeanor or—apartment location aside—his lifestyle, which is surprising when you consider his recent history. Given a fortune before his 21st birthday, then forced into early retirement before many people graduate college, Blackburn managed to keep himself under control. After three years in the pros, he emerged unscathed, even humbled by the experience. And then, with the help of a former mentor, he found a way to start all over again.

The 2001 NHL draft featured two future superstars—Ottawa Senators center Jason Spezza and New Jersey Devils left wing Ilya Kovalchuk—who were all but guaranteed to be taken with the first two picks. After that, it was anyone’s guess how things would shake out. When Dan Blackburn was still available in the 10th slot, the Rangers pounced on the opportunity to select the 18-year-old who had just been named the Canadian Hockey League’s goaltender of the year.

Typically, a goalie would then spend at least a season or two in the minors, but Blackburn performed so well in exhibition matchups that New York’s coaching staff felt he could handle a few games at the NHL level serving as a backup to Mike Richter, the longtime starter and former Stanley Cup champ. Even at 35, a well-traveled age for hockey players, Richter was still expected to shoulder a heavy burden—as many as 60 to 70 games of the 82-game season, leaving Blackburn with about a dozen starts to break in his pads. That would make Blackburn, then 18, the fourth-youngest goalie of all time. But then, as so often happens, the plan was forcibly altered. Richter’s season lasted only 45 games before a hard shot struck him on the side of his mask, resulting in a season-ending grade 3 concussion. With no help available on the free agent market, Blackburn became the Rangers’ starter, a teenage newcomer tasked with the unenviable goal of winning over the notoriously fickle, impatient, and unforgiving Madison Square Garden crowd.

Things started off promisingly. His first win came just a few nights later, on October 15, 2001, against the Montreal Canadiens, a 2-1 victory with his parents in the crowd. “I got first star,” he says, referring to hockey’s tradition of honoring the three top players of each game, first star, obviously, being the best of the best. “Definitely one of the major highlights of my life.” And the superlatives kept coming. He was now the third-youngest goalie of all time to notch a victory.

Blackburn finished the season with 12 wins, including four in his last six games. For his age, he showed unusual composure. When asked if Blackburn might take over for him one day, Richter told the Times, “I don’t think ‘might.’ I think ‘is.’ You don’t find players of that caliber very often.” The following season, the Rangers’ plan was back on track. Blackburn collected eight more wins playing a traditional backup role.

His career was progressing smoothly until later that off-season. One day after working out on the bench press, his shoulder began to ache. “It got progressively more sore,” Blackburn says. “Days turned into weeks, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong.” The doctors ordered MRIs, arthrograms, and other tests. Nothing conclusive came back. “I ended up going out on the ice one day to see if I could play through it,” he says. “And within about 10 minutes, I separated my shoulder.” Shortly after that, Blackburn’s doctors returned with a diagnosis: nerve damage.

“It wasn’t like it was a vicious injury,” he says. “It just got progressively more and more bleak. They give you a two-year window to heal. You can’t get a read on it. You just sit around and hope the nerves regenerate.”

After several months and no signs of progress, he went in for an operation. Though the procedure was technically a success—the surgeon set the nerves straight—there were still no signs of growth. As a last resort, Blackburn tried to invent a whole new method of goaltending, one that would accommodate his injury. The nerve damage limited his ability to catch pucks, so he took to the ice with no glove at all. Instead, he wore a second blocker, the long, rectangular piece of padding that usually covers the hand that grips the goal stick. No goaltender had ever tried anything like it. Blackburn tested his new style with the Salmon Kings, the worst team in the minor-league ECHL, and helped them snap a 25-game losing streak. “I thought it was a success,” he says. “And I actually think it’s a more effective tactic than wearing a glove. But I soon saw there was no way I would overcome the stigma of being injured or damaged.”

As the Rangers took precautions, trading for veteran Predators goalie Mike Dunham and drafting Al Montoya, another young, promising netminder, Blackburn saw the writing on the wall and quietly announced his retirement, preparing to move on. He started by going home. “All I’d ever been was a hockey player,” he says. “Getting through that kind of change, you need time to sit around and just do nothing. Soon you start pursuing different avenues, and those lead to other avenues, and you eventually figure it out. I knew if I just took that time to do nothing at all, it would come to me.”

And a few months later, it did. After trying a semester of college at Arizona State, Blackburn got back in touch with a former goalie coach, Ian Clarke, who had a job for him. Clarke wanted Blackburn to move to Dallas to manage and recruit new coaches for GDI. If he couldn’t play, at least he could put his expertise to good use. It seemed like a perfect fit. “We work with about 10,000 goalies,” Blackburn says. “It’s a big chunk of the market out there.” Notable GDI alums include current stars Roberto Luongo, Cam Ward, and Marc-Andre Fleury. Blackburn expects the business to keep growing. “Goalies are becoming more and more the most important position on a hockey team,” he says. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a general manager who would tell you otherwise. Frankly, if you don’t have a great goalie, you don’t win.”

Though Blackburn has embraced his new role with GDI, he’s honest about the fact that it doesn’t fill his 9-to-5. He still likes having some time to himself. A few days a month, he laces up his skates and competes in a local men’s league—as a forward, not in goal. Since shooting and passing uses different muscles, he’s able to compete without being limited by his shoulder. “I’ve heard [NHL star] Dany Heatley has the same injury as me to a slightly lesser degree, and you’d never notice because he plays right wing,” Blackburn says.

He keeps an open mind about the future, continuing to try new things. Not long ago, one of Blackburn’s men’s league teammates began talking about distressed real estate, the scores of families one missed payment away from being out on the streets. “Now my friend and I are working together in the foreclosure market,” he says. “Our goal is to help people avoid losing their homes.”

He has talked to the Stars about doing some work, but nothing has come of it yet. He’ll meet with Rangers’ general manager Glen Sather when he’s in New York, too, but just to catch up, never to float the idea of a comeback. He has put aside that possibility and, stunningly, feels no bitterness or regret about where his career has taken him. Now he thinks only about what’s ahead.

“Whether you retire at 21 or 22 or 35, it doesn’t last forever either way. Change is inevitable,” he says. “So long as you enjoy it while you go through the process, you won’t have any hard feelings. And if you excel at anything in life, the odds are good that you’ve got the characteristics to excel at other things. You just don’t know it yet. And I think that holds true for just about anything.”
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