Jonathon Blum’s fight is different. A defenseman for the men’s Olympic team, he plays professionally in HC Sochi of the Kontinental Hockey League in West Russia.
Sweat glistens off a beard that warms him from the frigid South Korea winds. His eyelids remain somewhat lowered. He’s tired. It’s understandable. He has spent the last six months away from his family, trading his home in Long Beach for one in various tundras of Eurasia.
Many men in USA Hockey share the same weariness. Out of the final 25-man roster, 17 male skaters play professionally overseas. “We do what we do,” said Blum, “to provide for our families.”
The lives of male hockey players – at least the ones not in the NHL –is an international pursuit of happiness, slipping their way past obstacles to seek better lives.
Blum – a former first-round NHL draft pick born in Long Beach – has bounced between East and West Russian KHL teams to provide for his wife Emilie and son Jackson.
Listen to Jon and Emilie’s story, as they persevere through distance and financial insecurity in Russia to make a living. Photo: Emilie Blum’s Twitter.
“No doubt it’s tough,” said Blum of his time away from family. “I’m thousands of miles away with a 14-month old son.”
“It’s like a military deployment,” said Emilie. She would know. She’s a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army.
“I learned (in the Army) not to put my roots down,” she said, “and it’s prepared for me for the separation from Jon.”
Deployments and separation from family. It certainly toughens those who deal with them. As a former Lieutenant in the United States Navy, I can tell you it builds resilience that many don’t face.
Jon overcame even more severe adversity during his childhood. You could call it an acid test in overcoming tragedy.
In April 2004, as a freshman at Trabucco Hills High School, he lost his twin sister Ashley to a family house fire.
“When something like that happens,” he said, “you’re in shock. You’ve got to move on with your life, even when you’re still raw from what happened.”
How does one push through tragedy? Blum finds comfort between the boards.
“I don’t know if I’m ever really over it,” he said in a 2015 ESPN interview, “When I’m on the ice, though, it doesn’t matter what’s happened. Ashley would want me there.”
Shortly after the death, he found an opportunity to play for the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants. The WHL is one step away from the chance at the NHL. However, the family was still grieving.
“Pretty tough hit for everyone to see me go,” he said, “when everyone needed to be together.”
At the same time, his mother Dana battled juvenile cancer (it has since receded). He credits his father Jon, an electrician in Orange County, for sustaining the family cohesion.
“He took care of my mom,” he said, “He ran the business. I owe a lot to my dad, that’s for sure.”
Jonathon’s talent, resolve and support brought him to his big league dreams. When the Nashville Predators drafted him in the 2009 NHL Draft, they made him the first Southern Californian first round pick.
The momentum stalled, however. He went from his early heights playing for the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild of the NHL to lesser-known Russian teams such as Admiral Vladivostok. Despite his tumble to the frozen tundra of Russia, fortune finally called in the form of a bid on Team USA.
“You certainly can’t complain about representing your country,” he said. It’s fitting that the Blum family both got to serve their country.
He wore red, white and blue, while Emilie wore fatigues.
Separation from family. Jonathon isn’t the alone one suffering. It’s a common theme for hockey professionals.
“I have seen my 16-month old child,” forward Chad Kolarik said, “for maybe two months of his life.”
Kolarik plays deep in Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg province, home of the famed Black Forest and his Adler Mannheim Eagles.
“If hockey is the best way for me to make my family’s life better, I’ll go wherever they send me,” Kolarik said. “Mannheim, Siberia, wherever.”
Emilie took Jackson on the 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Seoul, South Korea, and then the three-hour bus drive to Gangneung to be with Jon during the Olympics. Jackson shook off any travel weariness almost immediately upon reuniting with his father.
“He’s obsessed with him,” Emilie said. “He wants to be with him all the time now.”
Jon doesn’t easily dip into melodrama. He exudes a calm steeliness, but his son starts to melt him. “The best part of my time in Korea,” Jon said, “was Jackson collapsing in my arms. Whether it was back in the hotel room, or when I brought him on the ice to skate with me, it’s like neither of us wanted to leave that moment.”
The United States lost in a overtime shootout in the quarterfinals to the Czech Republic, ending their Olympics a few days early. After a few weeks in the KHL playoffs for HC Sochi, he traded his hockey stick for a hammer, running errands at his home in Long Beach.
“I had a great rhythm in this house,” Emilie jokes, “and Jon is still adjusting to my program. He leaves the TV on, which keeps the baby up.”
If Jackson wakes up in the middle of the night? “I’m the one getting up,” Jon said. “Despite the hardship in Russia, hockey is playtime for me. It’s time for me to get to work here.”
Jon looks to return to Sochi in July leading up to the next KHL season. Barring any change in team, he will miss Jackson’s next birthday in December.
Feature Photo: Jon Blum’s Twitter