On the surface it may have been just another meeting, but in reality it was much, much more. Brooks Lockwood knew it. Dean Talafous knew it. Chase Blackmun maybe didn’t know it then, but he definitely knows it now.
The Hudson High School boys’ hockey team had just wrapped up the year after finishing runner-up in the state tournament. Soon-to-be senior Chase Blackmun had just finished up another all-state season as a defenseman for the Raiders and he wanted to know what was next, where he was and where he needed to be. Lockwood and Talafous – a former NHL player and legendary hockey coach and scout – didn’t hold anything back.
“We told him that if he wanted to be a Division I hockey player, he needed to make a lot of strides his senior year,” Lockwood said. “We were runner-up the year before and he was on Team Wisconsin, but Dean and I both sat him down. We just talked about where he could be if he dedicated himself. Dean kind of laid it out as far as where he saw him as a Division I hockey player and said he wasn’t quite there yet. He had to work on his footwork and I think [Chase] left pretty disappointed in the meeting. We wanted to push him and see how far he could go. We were not doing him any favors by not telling him. I think sometimes that’s hard to do as a coach, but that’s why you are there – to see what he can improve on. Whether he’s the best player in the state or in our area or not, you just want to make sure he gets better.”
Blackmun could have decided to simply ride out his senior season and hope for the best. He could have ... but that’s not Chase Blackmun. Already known for his work ethic and dedication to his teammates and the game, Blackmun kicked his training into overdrive and soon everything started to fall into place.
The next summer and fall, Blackmun returned to skate for Team Wisconsin (U18) before skating into his senior year with Hudson, and success followed. Then last December, Blackmun signed a tender with the Janesville Jets of the NAHL. Three months later, he was hoisting a state championship trophy over his head after the Hudson Raiders captured their first state title since 2004.
Blackmun wasn’t done. With the state title added to his résumé, he returned to Team Wisconsin and helped the U18 squad to a second-place finish in nationals. Finally, last April, Blackmun re-joined the Jets, skating with Janesville as they rolled through the NAHL playoffs before falling in the semifinals. Blackmun played seven games for the Jets down the stretch, registering two points.
When the smoke cleared, Blackmun had a brief period of time to reflect. In the span of less than a year, he had skated for three different teams and played in 58 total games. In those games, the offensive-minded defenseman scored 21 goals and added 45 assists. More than that, in each case, he didn’t just play in regular season games, but also in championship-level contests where everyone was watching with interest.
Two teams in particular liked what they saw. In May, Blackmun was selected by the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders of the USHL in the second round of the USHL Draft. Already enjoying the ride, the momentum wave had one final push that capped off Blackmun’s year in style. In August, Blackmun – who a year earlier was being told he needed to make serious strides to become a Division I hockey player – committed to a Division I program after accepting a scholarship offer from UMass-Lowell. What a difference a year makes.
“At this time last year, I really didn’t know what was going to happen with my hockey career,” Blackmun said when asked to reflect on the past 12 months. “I think the most important thing is to never get complacent with where you are at, you can always get better and there are always going to be kids who are working to try to pass you. You have to continue to work to pass them. I try not to think too much about what’s happened in the past six months because in reality, at any given moment it can end. You can never lose sight of your goal and you need to always continue to work hard and get better.”
At 18 years old, he’s already experienced more life lessons than most, which is one of the reasons why Blackmun’s maturity on and off the ice shouldn’t surprise anyone. That ability to process and then overcome the obstacles in front of him has been a part of his game since his youth hockey days. Blackmun recalls being told by some that he would never be able to obtain his dream of playing Division I hockey, and with every comment, the internal desire to out-work anyone and everyone grew stronger and stronger.
That intensity to compete was one of the first things Lockwood saw during Blackmun’s days in Hudson, and it’s something current Cedar Rapids’ head coach Mark Carlson also saw when he decided to draft him.
“We liked him as a person most importantly,” Carlson said. “His work ethic and we thought he had great ability. He gets around the rink well and he sees the ice.”
“He’s just a great competitor,” Lockwood said. “He sets high goals for himself and he has great vision when it comes to where he wants to go and how to get there.”
“As a young kid I didn’t always make the A team,” Blackmun said. “I made the B team my Squirt year and my PeeWee year. My skating wasn’t always the best. I transitioned from a forward to a defenseman when I was around 13 or 14. I always had some people tell me I wasn’t a good enough skater. Having people tell me I can’t do it and then prove them wrong, it builds confidence. There are a lot of people who say you can’t do it, but you have to know with all of the hard work you put into it, it’s going to pay off. Staying disciplined on and off the ice, taking care of yourself, eating right – I’m always working to get better. It gives me the confidence to know I can do it and do it well.”
And then there are the results.
Now seven games into his first USHL season, the blueliner is tied for 11th in the league in scoring among defensemen with four assists. Blackmun also leads his fellow RoughRider D-men in shots on goal and special team points. While his maturity on the ice may be his greatest quality, his ability to move the puck might be his most obvious skill. Everywhere Blackmun has gone he’s been able to showcase his stick, and what that stick can do with the puck. Most recently, after tallying three assists in a weekend series with Lincoln and Central Illinois, Blackmun was named USHL Defenseman of the Week.
“It feels great,” Blackmun said. “After winning the state championship last year in high school and then doing so well with Team Wisconsin and then joining Janesville and also making it far with them, once you get that taste of victory and success you just want it more. It’s an emotional high and you want to chase that.
“Going into last summer, I worked my butt off as hard as I could in the weight room, on the ice, shooting pucks – just trying to be a better player. Coming into the season, I wanted to prove myself and make it known I can play at this level and that I am here to help the team. I wanted to do my best and give it all of my effort, and with all of the training over the summer, it really paid off. I’m excited to see how the season is going to go from here.”
“We certainly felt he had the offensive ability when we watched him last year, but he’s still working on the defensive side of things,” Carlson said. “He’s logged a lot of ice time so far. He knows he’s got to keep working every day and keep getting better, but I think it’s been a real good process for him so far.”
“He’s so good with the puck,” Lockwood said. “I think he knows that he needs to always continue to try to make improvements away from the puck. Then there is his ability to compete. If he’s not doing something right, he’s always trying to improve and get better. Certainly his ability with the puck is unquestioned.”
Judging by the way Blackmun continues to handle things in front of him – both on the ice and in life – his potential is also unquestioned. Where that will ultimately take him is a discussion for a different day. For Blackmun, he spends less time thinking about the future these days and more time focusing on the present. Based on the marathon-type journey he’s experienced over the past 12 months, who could blame him? He just wants to enjoy the moment.
“I have had a lot of people tell me I can’t do it in life and honestly being able to prove people wrong is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had,” Blackmun said. “I got the people who have supported me with me all the way, but being able to chase my goals and show people that no matter what people say, you can achieve whatever you put your mind to. It does keep me motivated. Also, looking at college hockey and what it’s like and that atmosphere, I can’t wait to get to that level. To be able to say I have been able to get to that level would be a great accomplishment.
“It was an exciting time (last 12 months). It’s been my goal to play college hockey and to get my commitment out and to commit to a great program like UMass-Lowell is very exciting, but at the same time, I just have to keep on getting better. That was my main focus after I committed. It’s kind of nice not have to be thinking about that anymore. Now I can just focus on getting better and helping my team as much as I can.”
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org