Blake McLaughlin first slipped on gloves and held a hockey stick when he was 2 years old.
He grew up skating on his family's backyard rink in Elk River. In the basement, he would pull on an Alex Ovechkin jersey and dream of sharing a line with the Russian superstar. And he fell in love with the Gophers after spending his childhood in the seats of Mariucci Arena.
"He always had that stick," said his mom, Tammi.
But the sport eventually took on a more significant meaning to Blake.
It became his way to cope after his dad died and he moved to Grand Rapids, a change that culminated in the toughest year of Blake's life.
And now his connection to the game has the chance to evolve again, with the 18-year-old forward poised to be included in the next wave of up-and-comers that gets drafted to the NHL this weekend in Dallas.
"I'm really excited," Blake said. "I hope I'm ready soon. This experience has been so surreal already. I can't imagine what's next for me."
Blake started like many little brothers do: between the pipes. He was tucked in the net to fend off pucks from older sibling Jered and his friends — after school, on weekends and in the summertime. When he began organized hockey at age 5, Blake stuck with the position for a season or two before moving up ice.
"It didn't matter how many hours he was gone away at a tournament or whatever he did, he'd always come home and grab a ball, put up a little course in our garage and just stickhandle with the dog," Tammi said.
He played locally in Elk River, and his dad Jon watched. The two talked hockey, about the NHL, but then the conversations stopped when Blake was 10.
While running, Jon suffered a heart attack and died in 2010. He was 43.
"It was horrible," Tammi said.
A year later, Tammi met Grant Bischoff while getting her cabin appraised. Grant's wife, Jackie, also died in 2010, from cancer. The father of four stayed in touch with Tammi, who also has a daughter, Jordan, and in August 2012, the two married — morphing into a family of nine.
"We all have the same interests," Jered said. "We love golfing. We love being on the lake. We love hunting and fishing."
Still, it was a challenging time for Blake, adjusting to a different school and new friends after his family moved to Grand Rapids, and hockey helped with the transition. When he was feeling down, he'd find a stick.
"I think there's where I came to excel in my life," Blake said.
Competing in the USHL
After helping Grand Rapids capture the Class 2A championship as a junior and getting named to the all-tournament team, Blake joined Chicago of the United States Hockey League for an 11-game stint before staying on for his senior year — a difficult decision but one Blake felt stoked his maturity on the ice.
Trent Klatt, who coached Grand Rapids at the time, couldn't to comment on Blake in advance of the draft because Klatt scouts for the New York Islanders.
"I knew in the long run, for myself, I needed to stay in Chicago," said Blake, who tallied 16 goals and 49 points in 25 regular-season games as a junior.
In 54 games in the USHL last season, he scored 23 goals and produced 52 points. The 6-foot, 157-pound left winger is ranked as the 25th-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting and has heard he could be selected in the first or second round.
"It's just been fun for him, and it's been good that he's had something that's got his mind off other things," Tammi said.
At the recent NHL combine, Blake interviewed with 25 teams. The Wild was among that group; so were the Jets and Avalanche, with those two chats the most enjoyable for Blake.
"It was just a fun group of guys in there," he said. "They were always laughing. It just kind of eased the tension."
Blended family understands
His hockey IQ is an asset, but Blake can improve his strength. College hockey has a knack for helping with that, and the NCAA is Blake's next destination. He will be with the Gophers in 2018-19 and is already training on the University of Minnesota campus.
Blake is the latest in the family to join the program; his stepbrother Jake was a defenseman on the team until 2017, while Grant was a forward from 1987 to 1991 — eclipsing 20 goals in each of his past three seasons.
"He just supports me," Blake said of Grant, who Blake credits for teaching him how to accept a pass on his backhand. "The other night we were talking about it. He told me he doesn't want to replace my dad, which is really nice of him to say that, but he just wants to be a father figure. So that's really cool to have him like that."
Having siblings who can relate to each other because of the hardship they have all experienced has also helped.
"We both lost a parent," Blake said. "As tough as that is, it makes it easier to bond when you know exactly what they're feeling. Yeah, they passed away in different ways. But you can for sure share that bond. I think that's one of the biggest things. If someone's having a hard day, we all know how to talk about it."
Hockey also connected the kids after Tammi and Grant were married. All seven have played the sport, and the family is eager to watch Blake's journey unfold. Blake will be accompanied in Dallas by Tammi and Jered, along with a few other family members and his girlfriend.
"When you see your name being brought up for an NHL draft, that's something you dream about," Blake said. "There's just a lot of excitement that one day you can have a real shot of playing in the NHL."
That's been Blake's goal ever since he was 7.
And while turning a pastime into a profession is still a work in progress, hockey isn't just a hobby anymore. It's a purpose and has been for quite some time.
"I'm proud of him," Tammi said. "I'm proud he followed his dream. He's worked hard. It's something he always wanted to do, and I always just tell him, 'If this is as far as you get, what an experience it's been.' He's learned so much."