PHILADELPHIA, PA -- You don't see many 28 year olds participating in Alumni/Old Timers' games, but that was the sight on Saturday afternoon as Dan Blackburn stood in goal wearing a New York Rangers jersey for the first time since his NHL career came to a premature end in 2005.
"I felt pretty good, actually. It didn't feel like I hadn't played for a long time, so I guess that's a win right there," said Blackburn said after the Philadelphia Flyers alumni's 3-1 victory.
When Blackburn was drafted tenth overall by the Rangers in 2001, he was looked at as the successor in goal to Mike Richter. But in two seasons in New York, Blackburn struggled, and then during the summer of 2003, his future changed forever.
While lifting weights Blackburn suffered nerve damage in his shoulder. Surgery in 2004 was seen as successful, but he still experienced issues with the shoulder. He didn't have the same feeling in the shoulder that he used to while making a glove save. To fix that and alleviate any problems making saves, he tried a unique approach: two blockers.
Blackburn came back and joined the Victoria Salmon Kings of the ECHL for 12 games in 2004 before participating in training camp with the Rangers the following season. An MCL sprain shortened his camp, and later that month he would announce his retirement at age 22.
As disappointing as it was to see Blackburn hanging up his skates for good at such a young age, it allowed him to close one chapter of his life and look forward to the next one.
"The way that my career ended, kind of being in limbo for a couple of years with the injury and wondering if it'll get better and can you play again, and as you get towards the end of that two-year period and to finally say, 'I'm not going to get better, it's time to retire', it was actually a mental relief for me to be able to move on and do something else," said Blackburn "It's just anguish for those two years when you're worried about it."
Now living in Dallas, Blackburn works in real estate, but still finds time to be involved with hockey coaching kids.
With names like Messier, Lindros and Clarke highlighting the rosters, Blackburn took the opportunity to soak in the experience of playing outdoors.
"With all these great guys, hockey legends, not just our team, but on the Flyers, too, in front of all the fans in a big event like this, there's far bigger names in the dressing room than me, so I'm just along for the ride," Blackburn said.
It was a ride that Blackburn will never forget.
"This was first-class. I don't know if it could've gotten better," Blackburn said.
"This is the highlight of my career."
Photo credit: New York Rangers