In No One’s Shadow

Some goalies who had to follow Marty Turco’s act, who had the timing to play down the road from some kid named Miller, might feel a little self-conscious, a little overshadowed.

Not Josh Blackburn.

“I’m just doing my own thing here. I’m not one of those guys who’s worried
about what everybody says about me. I don’t care. I just come and play.”

The Michigan senior — whose hometown is listed officially as Chocktaw, Okla., but who was born in Texas and spent his formative years in North Pole, Alaska — has the confidence of a self- proclaimed “military brat” and a just-one-of-the-guys disposition.

Heading into the CCHA’s Super Six weekend, Blackburn’s enthusiasm is as disarming as the “aw shucks” smile he flashes in his official team photo.

“This is the most closely knit team I’ve ever been on. On every team, there’s usually one or two outcasts. Everybody is close together.”

And Blackburn seems genuinely happy for Michigan’s vaunted freshmen, who will be making their first trip to the tourney. “Obviously those guys are
really excited, and all of them are getting a chance to play, and they’re
pretty pumped about that. It’s a fun time to play.”

In spite of a career interrupted by injury – a Lisfranc foot sprain his sophomore year, an off-ice injury that cost him 19 games – Blackburn’s resume is impressive. He’s 86-35-20 all-time going into the CCHA Championship Tournament, and has amassed 14 career shutouts, one shy of former Wolverine Marty Turco, who held the NCAA modern-day shutout record before Ryan Miller came along.

His five shutouts this season are two short of a school single-season record, and he posted back- to-back blankings of a single opponent twice this season, holding Alaska-Fairbanks and Lake Superior State scoreless in two-game sets.

His current save percentage (.907) is the highest of his career and — in case you’re wondering — his save percentage in Michigan’s impressive last 10 games is .918.

Drafted in the fifth round by the Phoenix Coyotes in 1998, Blackburn says that professional hockey still seems far away. “Hopefully I’ll get a chance to [play in the NHL], but I’m not really worried about that. I’m trying to
improve and get better and be the best I can to set myself up for a good
chance to be able to play competitively next year.”

Concentrating on how to improve his game is something Blackburn had plenty of time to do during the 1999-2000 season, when he was out with that injury. It was, says Blackburn, “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

“It was really hard to watch every game. It was hard to feel part of the team, because you weren’t contributing. Everybody was really supportive, all my teammates and the coaches.

“I tried to do what I could do when I was off the ice. I watched old videos and analyzed my game saw what I needed to do.”

The video strategy must have worked; he shut out Michigan State 2-0 his first game back, in East Lansing.

After life on crutches for three months, Blackburn says he was still “getting the timing of walking” even after he resumed playing. “I still can’t walk 18 holes of golf without it hurting.” He keeps the screws from his surgery in a jar.

Although he’s trying to concentrate on the here and now, Blackburn knows that he’ll have some adjusting to do when this season is over. “I’m going to miss everything. Probably the most is the group of guys … just being a part of the team here and the tradition. I think we have the best fans in the world.”

He remembers “every one of the [NCAA] Regionals we went to,” and — not surprisingly — one of his fondest memories is the end of his sophomore year,
when Michigan won the CCHA Championship Tournament.

He adds, “You kind of take it for granted, being in the CCHA, but playing in Joe Louis is just an incredible experience, a real privilege.”

Other great moments? “Last year, playing the Frozen Four – that was unbelievable, to be that close. And the Cold War was a lot of fun. I liked
it. It was just crazy, looking around and thinking, ‘What am I doing here? I’m in the middle of a football field, in the middle of Spartan Stadium.”

As for the netminder of Michigan’s arch-rival, “I can appreciate him,” says
Blackburn. “A lot of people say anybody can be good on that team with their
defense, but this year with their style of play he’s more important than ever. He’s a great goalie.”

And while he’s not eager to look past his next game, let alone this season,
Blackburn says that somewhere down the road, after what he hopes will be a
long, healthy, prosperous professional hockey career, he’d like to return to
Alaska. “I think I’d like to be a teacher. Or a guide. Maybe get my pilot’s license.

“Being outdoors, bringing people to the outdoors…that would be a good way to spend the rest of my life.”

So years from now, if you get to Alaska — maybe somewhere near North Pole —
feel free to look up Josh Blackburn, who will be busy being just one of the