Every day, at some unexpected moment, a memory of Jon Blum’s twin sister pops in his head. Invariably, the questions follow, questions he would give anything to have answered.
“What would she be doing now? What college would she have gone to? When would she have had kids?” asked Blum, his eyes fixated on the carpet. “She had so much potential. There are big question marks.”
As Jon Blum grew up playing hockey in southern California, Ashley Blum attended most every one of his games. They had lockers next to each other at Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo, had the same math class.
“She was my biggest fan,” said the 25-year-old Blum, a defenseman the Wild will rely upon heavily during its playoff push. “It’s been almost 10 years to the day.”
On April 2, 2004, when Jon and his sister were only 15, Ashley, who had come home from school earlier that day because she was ill, was sleeping when their house caught fire because of a gas leak. Blum and his family were at a hospital 20 minutes away visiting a relative who was undergoing surgery. A neighbor called them to rush home.
“We dropped everything,” Blum said. “About a mile from the house, we saw the ambulance and followed it home. A couple hours later, you get word your sister is gone and the house you grew up in for 15 years has burned down. Your life changes forever.”
The loss of Jon’s sister presents a big void in his life. Ashley wanted to be a chef, and the two would joke about how someday when he made it to the NHL, she would be his personal chef.
On Sunday, in the middle of the Wild’s upcoming four-game road trip, Blum will travel to Los Angeles with the Wild, where it plays Jon’s favorite team as a kid, the Kings, on Monday.
“It’ll be nice to be with my family,” Blum said. “This is definitely a tough time of year, and this being the 10-year anniversary, we can honor her memory together. You never forget no matter how old you are and how long it’s been.”
Hockey and surfing
California isn’t a hockey hotbed, but Jon Blum got the hockey bug as a child when he and a dozen of his friends would play roller hockey in his cul-de-sac in Rancho Santa Margarita, which is about 25 minutes south of Anaheim.
“The sewer drains would be our goals,” Blum said.
At age 6, he tried on ice skates for the first time at a birthday party and fell in love. By 8, he joined the California Wave, a youth hockey program that would travel to such places as Quebec City, Toronto, Chicago, Denver and Detroit.
“My parents [John and Dana] owned a motor home, and our ice was up in Huntington Beach,” Blum said. “We’d play an 8 a.m. game on a Saturday, and my parents would take the whole team and the coaches to the beach after. We’d surf for four to six hours and have a barbecue. California is pretty laid back. Whenever you can go play a hockey game and then go surf afterward, it makes it all the better.”
The Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League drafted Blum in the seventh round in 2004, only that late because in those days, it was atypical for American teenagers to leave home to play major Canadian junior hockey.
“We got lucky,” said Don Hay, longtime coach of the Giants. “He’s one of the best we’ve had and in his four years, he had maybe more success than any player we’ve had.”
Blum played in two Memorial Cups, winning the Canadian hockey league title in 2007. In four years, Blum scored 49 goals and 204 points and was the CHL Defenseman of the Year in 2009.
He made the team as a 16-year-old but nearly didn’t go. Six months after his sister died, his mother was diagnosed with a type of juvenile cancer and given months to live.
“She looked me in the eye and told me, ‘Go do what you love to do. Don’t let this stop you,’ ” said Blum, his voice cracking. “Looking back and not being there to see her sick — she was 90 pounds, no hair, basically on her death bed — it was a blessing. My parents did a good job protecting me when I was so far away.
“I’d call after a game and ask how she was, and dad would be like, ‘Oh yeah, she’s doing good,’ when she was really throwing up in a trash can.”
After sessions of chemotherapy and eventual heart surgery, his mother is now cancer free.
Hay learned a lot about Blum’s strength during his four years in Vancouver. He remembers a team-building exercise in the locker room where he had each athlete talk about their life and family.
In front of his teammates, Blum talked about the death of his twin sister and his mother’s cancer.
“It was an emotional session,” Hay said. “It made every player appreciate and accept him even more for making that decision to leave California. It really opened the team’s eyes for just what this kid had been through, how strong he was to leave mum and dad and come up to Canada.”
Making the big time
In 2007, the Nashville Predators made Blum the first California born-and-trained hockey player to be drafted in the first round.
He played 91 games with the Predators over parts of three seasons, plus an additional 12 in the playoffs. He signed a two-way contract with the Wild last summer, so he knew he likely would provide roster insurance and spend much of this season with Iowa of the AHL.
He became one of the Baby Wild’s leaders and loves to keep things loose. For proof, just check out his Twitter account (@JonBlum7), where he’ll often rant about sports, write about his two dogs (chiweenies) or post pictures of unsuspecting teammates.
Injuries to Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard caused the Wild to call upon Blum. In Sunday’s 4-3 overtime victory over Detroit, Blum played his fifth game of the season and first in his most recent call-up, logging 14 ½ minutes and taking three shots.
Coach Mike Yeo credited Blum for helping the Wild defend less and attack more because of his puck retrievals.
“I want to make sure it’s not a one-game thing,” Yeo said. “We’re going to count on him. He has every ability to go out and do it night after night. … This is a guy who has played in meaningful games in this league this time of year.”
Blum showed impressive composure and says it stems from playing in playoff pushes in Nashville and all his years of winning with the Giants.
“Jon’s strength was his hockey sense,” Hay said. “He really understood the game and could really read the game. His offensive skills stood out and took over, but it was the way he could think the game at a high level when it was very competitive that set him apart. He could make plays under pressure.”
Blum, who’s marrying his fiancée, Emilie Baum, on June 28, said he’s “definitely ready” for the Wild’s playoff push. And when he needs strength, he thinks about his sister and mother.
“My mom’s missing two-thirds of her lung on one side and it was in her heart,” Blum said. “I always want to work hard for both of them. I’ll take a shot to the leg or my legs will be tired, I’ll just think about how my mom went through cancer and beat it. People are in a lot worse situations than I am.
“I get to play a game for a living and people are fighting for their lives.”