PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA – Jonathon Blum checked his phone one last time at 2 a.m. before he went to bed. He had an e-mail asking him to call the general manager of USA Hockey right away.
“You’ll like this phone call,” the e-mail said.
He had made the U.S. Olympic team.
“I was trying to think of something to say, but you can’t because you’re standing there frozen,” Blum said.
Blum has witnessed so many bizarre events in his nomadic hockey career that nothing really surprises him anymore. That phone call floored him.
After all, he is a 29-year-old NHL castoff who played four months in Russia without being paid and hadn’t seen his wife and 1-year-old son since November until this week. That’s because he’s trying to provide a better life for them financially, which is why he changed teams and relocated to Sochi of all places.
So, yeah, he’s feeling the red-white-and-blue Olympic spirit.
“Maybe I’ll write a book,” he said.
Let’s skip ahead a few chapters to his time with the Wild. He spent parts of two seasons with the team as an extra defenseman from 2013-15. He was a fringe player, shuffling back and forth to the minors, an emergency call-up whenever someone got injured.
The Wild asked him to take a pay cut as a restricted free agent. He asked to be traded, and the team balked. Tired of seeing his career in limbo, he sought better money in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, regarded as the second-best league in the world behind the NHL.
“Hockey wasn’t fun for me at that time,” he said.
The next chapters of his book read like fiction. He signed with a team located in Vladivostok because he thought he was talking to a team official from Omsk. Apparently, the two teams’ nicknames “Admiral” and “Avangard” got lost in translation.
Vladivostok is located in the southeastern tip of Russia, not far from North Korea, and a long way from other KHL teams. He loved the hockey, hated the travel.
He ranked among the KHL leaders in ice time all three seasons. Travel was a nightmare. Russia has 11 time zones, and his team was so isolated geographically that a flight to Moscow, for example, took 8 ½ hours — if it took a larger plane that didn’t need to stop to refuel.
“I think I’m the world’s most traveled athlete the past three years,” he said.
He’s seen a lot in those three years. Like the time a fan in Siberia purposely crashed into the team bus, which was en route to the arena before Game 5 of a playoff series. The delay caused the team to arrive 90 minutes before faceoff.
“That was the cherry on top of my first year in Russia,” he said.
The cherry on top of his third season landed on his bank account. Blum said he didn’t receive a paycheck after September. He and several other players left the team recently as a result and are considering legal options.
“It’s kind of a mess,” he said. “You go over there basically for one reason, that’s to make the money. It’s not fun living on your own and being away from your family and young son. On top of that not being paid for what you’re doing.”
He signed with a KHL team in Sochi and has played in eight games with two more left before the playoffs start. He becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.
He would love another shot in the NHL, but “I’m a realist,” he said. “I’m 29 and there’s a reason why I’m not there. The NHL wants to go younger and younger.”
He’s convinced he can be productive, but he also knows he lacks prototype size that teams covet on the blue line. He’s listed at 6-1, 187 pounds and is not a top-four defenseman. That’s a tough sell to NHL general managers.
Blum doesn’t mind returning to the KHL — as long as he gets paid — but family sacrifice makes it challenging. His wife, Emilie, and son, Jackson, live in California, his home state, which is an 18-hour time difference. They visited him in Russia in November and were expected to reunite in South Korea this week.
Jackson has started walking since the last time his dad saw him in person. Electronic communication will have to do for now.
“He sees me on FaceTime and says, ‘Dada,’ ” Blum said. “That’s really cool.”
Wait until he watches his dad play in the Olympics.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org