North Andover’s Power Ranger
Colin Blackwell reflects on hockey, hard work and growing up in the Merrimack Valley
At 28 years old, New York Rangers center Colin Blackwell is enjoying his finest season in the National Hockey League (NHL), endearing himself to the New York fan base with his high-energy style of play coupled with production (22 points in 37 games, including 12 goals — career highs for Blackwell — as of April 21). However, the road to the sport’s biggest stage has been bumpy at times for the Harvard hockey product and former standout at St. John’s Prep in Danvers. We caught up with Blackwell to talk about how he overcame adversity on his path to the pros, and how Taylor Swift played a part in his NHL draft story.
What are some of your earliest hockey memories?
I was born in North Andover but moved away for a couple of years to just outside Philadelphia. I remember growing up and seeing [future Hall of Famer] Eric Lindros picking up [Philadelphia Flyers teammate] Chris Gratton in our neighborhood. That’s the time when I started enjoying hockey, but I didn’t start playing until I got back to Massachusetts. For a little while, I did both North Andover youth hockey and Valley Jr. Warriors. Between those two programs, my hockey development really started, and I kind of caught the bug.
And [the love of the game] came from my dad and my brother. Growing up, whatever my brother did, I followed suit. He’s always been someone I looked up to. We both got [the love] from my dad. When we first moved back to town, my dad gave my brother and I the option to finish the rest of the basement or leave it as is. We decided to leave it as is and throw a hockey net down there.
So, after sharpening your skills with cellar slap shots, you ended up attending St. John’s Prep in Danvers for high school, right?
Yep. Going to the Prep was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. Going into my freshman year, the joke was I was 5-3, maybe 135 pounds, a little pip-squeak [Blackwell is now 5-9, 190 pounds]. But I did make the varsity team as a freshman, and it was an interesting dynamic because there were 18 seniors on the team that year, and I was kind of their little brother. I really didn’t play much, but that’s where I found that confidence is kind of everything in this game and life in general. And the coaching staff there put a lot of confidence in me and I was able to blossom as a hockey player.
In my sophomore year, I started growing and I made a huge jump. I had a couple of college programs wanting to talk to me. I went on some visits. I was really focused on St. John’s Prep at the time, but as I started getting older in my high school career, I knew I could make a step to the next level and be pretty successful.
You grew (literally and figuratively) into a star player at St. John’s, amassing 66 points during your senior year of high school career, and were selected by the San Jose Sharks in the seventh round, the 194th overall pick, in the 2011 draft. How did you find out that you were drafted?
I remember nobody was at home and I was getting ready to go to a concert. It was in the summer, and I knew the draft was going on. And I remember being like, ahh, why don’t you just go refresh NHL.com just to see the couple teams I had talked to. They had a couple picks in the later rounds. Right then and there I saw my name pop up [on the computer] with San Jose, and shortly after I got a call from them. It was a dream come true.
And you got to celebrate by attending …
A Taylor Swift concert with a handful of people. (Laughs.)
[The news] definitely made the day and the concert a little bit better.
After high school, you enrolled at Harvard University instead of going pro right away. How come?
When I was 18 years old, I surely wasn’t ready to make the step up to the professional ranks. For me, it was using hockey to get a good education. And [Harvard] was an awesome experience. Our hockey class was a huge part of reviving the culture there. That was something I took a lot of pride in. We competed in the Beanpot [tournament in Boston], played in the ECAC tournament; we got to play at Madison Square Garden. To see where we came in and when we left, the program was in good hands, and it was something I was really proud of.
You also experienced some setbacks in your collegiate career.
Yeah, I missed two years of college hockey with some concussion issues. When I finished, San Jose still had my rights until August of that year. And I ended up signing an American [Hockey] League contract with them. I felt that I had done well my senior year, but maybe not as well as I had hoped to. And I still had question marks around me from an injury perspective and whatnot, so I didn’t get an NHL contract, which I was pretty bummed out about.
Your first game in the NHL came two years later as a member of the Nashville Predators. What was the moment like when you stepped onto the ice?
I think there were 10 people that flew out for it. It was my parents, my brother, and some people I grew up with. For me, I just tried to take it all in. When I missed two years of hockey with head problems, I was very close numerous times to hanging them up for good. It was one of those moments where everything kind of comes full circle. And I felt really lucky and blessed and thankful. It could have been easy to give up, get a good education, and go find some job. Having those people always supporting me and having something to share with them was pretty special.
Talk about your experience playing with the Rangers.
In New York, I stayed ready and eventually got my shot. In the first couple of games, I was able to contribute and that’s kind of what I was trying to do. It’s not always going to be goals and assists and things along those lines, but I felt like I could be a Swiss Army knife. I can slide in up and down the lineup and help out in many different ways. And every single day I just try to earn my coaches’ and my teammates’ trust. Because it was all new to me [at the beginning of the season, his first with the Rangers]. New system, new teammates, new everything. The training camp was really quick, and you’re kind of learning on the fly. So for me, that’s kind of what I feel my skill set is and my career has been. When your opportunity is called, just make the most of it, and I’ve been trying to do that this year. And I’ve been given some really good chances.