Insightful - realistic - very well-spoken - blessed with a wonderfully grounded perspective - equipped with a thinking man’s approach to his sport - able to balance fun with competition: all of these apply to Garson native Sean Blanchard.
But far more than that, the 43 year-old resident of Oakville is a pretty darn talented hockey player, as well.
A Max Kaminsky Award (top defenceman in the OHL - as well as the CHL in 1996-1997) and a 4th round selection by the Los Angeles Kings back in 1997 are a testament to that - not to mention a professional hockey career that spanned no less than 15 years (22 years, if you want to tack on his involvement with Allan Cup Hockey, largely in Stoney Creek).
That kind of longevity in the game is often a product of a highly supportive and welcoming environment when children are first introduced to hockey. “My first year of hockey in Sudbury, I was maybe eight years old, I played with a couple of players who ended up being my best friends at the time - and still are,” said Blanchard.
His love of the game has stayed steady at his side, through a four year career with the Ottawa 67’s (including two appearances in the OHL finals), through minor league stops in Mississippi, Florida and various other outposts, eventually crossing the Atlantic and enjoying the scenery of Italy and Germany, and all that world class cities such as London (England) and Zurich (Switzerland) have to offer.
Through it all, Blanchard circles back to the same core memories that symbolize his youth.
“Games and practices are really neither here nor there when it comes right down to it,” noted the father of three. “It’s the people you meet, the friendships that you make - that’s what you remember. I really don’t have much of a memory for games or goals or stuff like that.”
And so we chat of general themes, the very notion that his approach may have been a bit ahead of his time, even if he had little concept of exactly what being included on an OHL draft list entailed.
“In a sense, I was quite serious about the game from an early age, in that I was doing off-season training and off-ice training quite young,” he said. “But I don’t feel that it was ever a chore - it was always something I really wanted to do. I enjoyed learning about nutrition.”
Though he acknowledged that his father (Al “Tubby” Blanchard) was far and away the most influential person in his formative hockey days, Blanchard also noted that his minor hockey involvement came in just the right dosage. “I think that some of the biggest improvements I made was not skating for four or five months and just playing baseball or soccer or water skiing, doing other things.”
“You come back to it and your body remembers what you have to do.”
Always an avid fan of the game that he played, Blanchard still consumes more than his fair share of NHL action, sharing conversations with many a well-positioned contact and displaying a keen awareness for the evolution of hockey over the years.
“The game has advanced so much now, it’s so scientific,” noted the man whose final season of pro hockey came in 2012-2013 (Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams - Germany), but who captained the Brantford Blast in 2019-2020, wrapping up a seven year stint in the Ontario Senior “A” ranks.
“Teams are practicing now two or three times a week, for maybe forty minutes or so, and that’s it. When I played, it was all about getting that hour, hour and a half on the ice and getting that workout in. Now, the actual fitness part comes off the ice. I think that’s such a neat thing.”
There is no doubt that Blanchard is blessed with an ability to view hockey through a prism that only a small percentage of his former teammates would have enjoyed. “I’ve never had a favourite team, but I still enjoy the game,” he said. “I enjoy watching it and learning about the analytics and the different aspects of the game.”
“Hockey seems to flip on its head every five years or so and I think that it’s really interesting to see how that changes.”
From the very outset, Blanchard managed to maintain an outlook that was extremely well grounded. Even as he drove, with his father, to the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, fresh off being named the best junior blueliner in the province, he would not be consumed by the game, at least not in any kind of negative manner.
“A part of me didn’t want to go to the draft because I didn’t think I was going to get drafted,” he said. “I didn’t want to be that kid, sitting in the stands for two days and leaving disappointed. I knew that I had some success in juniors, but the only interview I had, I think, was with the Buffalo Sabres, and they asked me about Brian Campbell for about thirty minutes,” he said with a smile.
Where some might be accused of enhancing the memories of the player they were, this clearly does not apply to Blanchard. “My skill set may have been a little more useful in today’s game, but I think the problem with me is that I really didn’t have a niche,” he suggested.
“I wasn’t a rushing defenceman, I didn’t have a great shot. I could do everything decently well, but nothing great. Maybe my skating would be my one outstanding attribute.”
And skate he would, for miles and miles and miles, across two different continents and a handful of countries. The fun never left - nor did his appreciation for the opportunities he was given.
“Every place that I played had its charm for a different reason,” said Blanchard. “Being in Florida, it was nice to be able to go to the pool and golf all the time - you really can’t beat that away from the rink. Culturally, our home in Italy was a tiny little mountain village about an hour from Innsbruck (Austria).”
“What you give away in being in a bigger centre you gain by getting to know people and becoming part of the community a bit more.”
Truth is that Blanchard enjoyed a bit of both worlds. “I was fortunate to be in some world renown cities, places that people take vacations to go and visit, so I feel pretty lucky to have lived in them.”
Even as he stepped away from professional hockey, Blanchard could still provide a colourful viewpoint, providing a description of his Allan Cup Hockey involvement that may have dismayed his youngest son (a budding statistician who would make me proud, from the sound of things), but would have proud a smile to the face of all other hockey fans.
“Essentially, it’s guys that never practice together,” explained Blanchard. “We assemble on a Friday or Saturday night - I usually show up about eight minutes before warm-ups start. The way I used to prepare for a game was an entire day ordeal. Here, I put the seat warmers on in my truck and hope that it’s enough to get me warm.”
“We have fun, but it’s still competitive. It’s a highly organized beer league with more than an occasional body check.”
And it’s the last stop that Sean Blanchard enjoyed, as a player - a player who just happens to be gifted with a positivity and perspective that not everyone has.