Nick Blankenburg tried to suppress his smile, but the sheer joy of his first assist in the NHL won out.
It took the Blue Jackets’ rookie defenseman just over two periods in Wednesday’s 5-1 win over the Canadiens to land on the scoresheet for the first time. He set up Emil Bemstrom for a shot that was tipped home by Cole Sillinger at 6:24 of the third period, giving him the secondary assist. As soon as the puck hit the net, Blankenburg’s face broke open with an ear-to-ear grin.
As he skated to the bench to celebrate, his elation was evident.
“I was trying not to smile too much but at a certain point skating to the bench, I couldn’t help myself,” Blankenburg said. “Definitely a moment I’ll remember forever. … Just a sense of relief, a little bit. I saw it go in. I’m kind of at a loss for words. Obviously, it’s a childhood dream to play your first game in the NHL, and another one to get your first point.”
Every young hockey player grows up dreaming of playing on the biggest stage, but for much of Blankenburg’s career, making it to the NHL level was far from guaranteed. His delight at notching his first point, in his first game, drove home the significance of the path he took to get to this point.
“I don’t really think many people expected me to be here,” Blankenburg said Monday after his first practice. “Just to be here, for me personally, and believing in myself and having that belief has really helped me along the way.”
To put it lightly, Blankenburg’s journey to the NHL was non-traditional. He led his high school team in Romeo, Mich. to a state championship in 2016 with 67 points in 30 games, back when he was still a forward. He didn’t switch to defense until the fall of 2016, when he played a post-high school year of U18 major midget for Victory Honda after not making a junior team.
His path then took him to Okotoks in the AJHL, a Canadian Junior A league a step below Canadian major junior or American junior hockey. It was there that Michigan found him and offered him a spot on the team as a walk-on for the 2018-19 season.
Four seasons later, Blankenburg finished his Michigan career as the team captain and earned a scholarship for his final year. He put up a career-best 14 goals and 29 points in 38 games before signing with the Jackets just one day after the Wolverines’ season ended in a Frozen Four semifinal loss to Denver on April 7.
“(When I started) really thinking and believing that I can (make the NHL) is probably once I got to college,” Blankenburg said. “Thinking I’d really develop through my time at Michigan and just kinda see what happens from there. At the end of the day, I just worked as hard as I could and just competed.”
Working hard and competing are the hallmarks of Blankenburg’s game as an undersized defenseman, but he doesn’t let his stature keep him from blocking shots and playing with physicality. On just his second shift of the game, he laid a hit that sent Montreal forward Jake Evans tumbling into the boards, and he finished the game with five blocked shots.
While cautioning against making large conclusions from a single game, Jackets coach Brad Larsen couldn’t hide his satisfaction with Blankenburg’s performance in his first game.
“He’s assertive,” Larsen said. “He trusts his game. He had four blocked shots after two periods. He’s five-foot — I won’t even say. I’m not sure what he is. Doesn’t matter. He gets in the way. There’s a will to do it. … Right away, you can see he’s got a real intent to defend, to get in the way, to block shots.”
Blankenburg was named the third star of the game for his performance, earning him an ovation from the crowd at Nationwide Arena as he skated a lap of recognition. The smile that he couldn’t suppress after Sillinger’s goal returned, and this time, he didn’t even try to hide it.
He gazed up at the 16,708 people in attendance, soaking in the moment that capped off an unforgettable beginning to his NHL career — a career he once wasn’t sure he’d ever get.
“It’s hard to even think about,” Blankenburg said. “I’m kind of at a loss for words just thinking about it. It’s been a crazy ride so far.”