By Patrick Cwiklinski
At 22, most goaltenders have yet to brush the surface of their NHL careers, but for Dan Blackburn, a career-ending injury forced the New York Rangers budding netminder to leave the game and never look back.
Blackburn was a sought-after prospect at the 2001 NHL draft after two strong seasons with the Kootenay Ice of the Western League that included a league championship and Memorial Cup appearance in 2000. He was named Canadian League Goaltender of the Year the following season - his last in junior hockey - by earning 33 wins in 50 games and posting a 2.77 goals-against average.
“It meant a lot considering it was right before the draft,” said Blackburn of the honor. “I figured that would mean a lot in terms of my draft status, but it’s always a big honor anytime you get to win goalie of the year award in any league.”
The recognition Blackburn received from his outstanding year with the Ice helped the Montreal native get selected 10th overall in the first round of the 2001 draft by the New York Rangers who were seeking a new backup for Mike Richter after Kirk McLean retired.
“I knew there was an opportunity right away in terms of a backup position, which doesn’t happen very often in the NHL,” he said. “The Rangers had nobody who was sort of the next guy in line in their American League system so there was an opportunity for me to compete for a position right out of the draft and that’s really what I ultimately wanted.”
Blackburn was successful in his attempt to secure an NHL job and moved to the pros from major junior as Richter’s backup for the 2001-02 season and appeared in 31 games for the team. He was also named to the NHL All-Rookie team and established himself as the Rangers’ goaltender of the future.
“I know people like to slap tags out like that, but it’s not something that ever crossed my mind really,” he said. “I was just enjoying the time I spent there and you learn a lot from an older guy like Mike (Richter).”
Unfazed under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, Blackburn maintained a calm demeanor when dealing with the pressures of playing in a massive hockey market, but his will was tested after the 2002-03 season when a weightlifting accident in the summer resulted in a nerve injury to his catching hand.
“When it first happened I didn’t think anything of it because it just seemed very very minor,” he said. “It didn’t even seem like an injury at first and then it kind of got progressively more painful over the course of a few weeks.”
The pain never passed.
After some time, Blackburn managed to make a short return to the ice, but suffered another setback when he separated his shoulder.
During the 2004-05 season, he attempted a comeback with the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL and sported two blockers because of his immobile hand, but he struggled and even after being offered to play another year for the Rangers he knew things would never be the same.
In September of 2005, Blackburn announced his retirement from the NHL.
But instead of living in the past, he decided to reinvent himself and attended Arizona State University where he did work for the Goaltending Development Institute before settling in Dallas where he currently works in real estate.
“I think there’s a little bit of a learning curve that you need to pick up on especially when it comes to business issues and a lot of stuff that deals with business and being able to get involved in that certainly has laid a good foundation for the different business opportunities that I’m working on now,” he said.
And even though it was a difficult decision to leave hockey behind for good, Blackburn knew it was one he had to make so he could move on and live his life.
“I wasn’t going to be getting better,” he said. “For me it was closure just to be able to move on and it was just mentally incredibly taxing sitting around and not being part of the team and sort of being on your own all the time so I was happy to be able to move on finally.”