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Jonathon Blum’s hockey career rejuvenates in Russia

LOS ANGELES -- There are moments when Jonathon Blum can forget he's 18 time zones away from home, wrestling with a new language and enduring 10-hour flights across the vastness of Russia, all in pursuit of a hockey dream born after Wayne Gretzky ...

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Blackhawks center Brad Richards (left), Jonathon Blum, then a defenseman for the Wild, and the Blackhawks’ Bryan Bickell chase a puck on Jan. 11. Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune
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LOS ANGELES - There are moments when Jonathon Blum can forget he’s 18 time zones away from home, wrestling with a new language and enduring 10-hour flights across the vastness of Russia, all in pursuit of a hockey dream born after Wayne Gretzky joined the Kings and inspired kids to scrimmage on suburban streets and take tentative strides onto the ice.
“I love just staring out the window towards the ocean. It reminds me of being home in Southern California,” said Blum, who was born in Long Beach and raised a Kings fan in Rancho Santa Margarita. “Little things like that really count.”
He’s not in the OC anymore. He’s playing in the Kontinental Hockey League in Vladivostok, Russia, a major port city perhaps best known as the home of Russia’s Pacific fleet and the end point of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The way, way, distant end point.
“He’s not just in Russia, he’s in east Russia,” said Kings left wing Milan Lucic, Blum’s friend since they were junior teammates with Vancouver of the Western Hockey League. “He’s willing to go anywhere to play the game that he loves, even in a foreign country far, far away.”
Jet lag and language barrier aside, Blum is flourishing. The 26-year-old defenseman has five goals and 22 points in 39 games with Admiral Vladivostok, which resumes play next week after a break.
Blum and forward David Booth - who played for Florida, Vancouver and Toronto in the NHL - are the only English speakers on the team. While Blum is glad to have someone to chat with during meals and bus rides and in the locker room, he’s picking up some Russian words along the way.
“Most of the guys speak a little English, but when it comes down to talking and stuff there’s a lot of pointing going on,” Blum said. “The coach (Alexander Andriyevsky) speaks English and the defensive coach is from Sweden so it’s a good fit for me. We also have a translator on the bench if we ever need it, and in the meetings.”
A creative, puck-moving defenseman, Blum was chosen in the first round, 23rd overall, by the Nashville Predators in the 2007 entry draft. But he isn’t big - 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds - and he couldn’t keep a regular job in the NHL, playing only 91 games over three seasons. He signed with Minnesota as a free agent in 2013 but bounced back and forth between the Wild and Iowa of the American Hockey League, playing only 19 NHL games.
When Blum became a restricted free agent last summer, the Wild’s contract offer included a pay cut. “I wanted to be traded to get a fresh start but they wouldn’t trade me,” he said, so he began to look toward Europe and drew interest from two KHL teams.
For his wife Emilie, who was doing marketing work for the Army in Nashville when they met - and did most of the packing when he ping-ponged between the NHL and AHL - Vladivostok was an unexpected option. Both of them had to look up the city’s location on a map; she was fearful he would encounter anti-American sentiment there. That hasn’t been the case.
“Never in a million years did I think I would find myself with a husband in Russia. But it’s been great for his career,” said Emilie, who was featured last season on the Canadian TV show “Hockey Wives” and was a favorite among viewers for her down-to-earth nature. “It’s been shockingly great, so I’m happy about that.”
She has remained at the couple’s Ladera Ranch home this season, taking advantage of her first chance to decorate it in the year and a half they’ve been married. She’s also running a specialty pet company called doubledogshop.com in honor of their two dogs, and she watches most of Jonathon’s games via live streaming. Emilie Blum visited Vladivostok once and plans to return soon; his father and other relatives recently made the trip there.
“It’s been a total rejuvenation for his career. He’s doing great. He loves it,” she said. “And the distance, it’s working for us. We’re both flourishing in our own ways. It’s like he’s deployed. I’m used to that in the military, so that’s the way I’ve had to think of it. We’re apart temporarily, but we’ll be together when the season is over.”
Jonathon said the quality of play in the KHL is good and the skill level is elevated by Ilya Kovalchuk, twice a 50-goal scorer in the NHL, and Alexander Radulov. “The KHL is loaded with a lot of high-end talent. It’s definitely better than the AHL but steps below the NHL, that’s for sure,” he said.
Returning to the NHL remains his goal, but he’s open to signing another contract in Russia. The journey that began with roller hockey games in front of his house might have more twists.
“For me, coming to Russia and being so far away from home is a big sacrifice, but I just love the challenge of doing something new,” he said. “I’ve always had the mind-set that no matter where I’m playing hockey - NHL, AHL, KHL - I’m very fortunate to play a game for a living and love my job and make some good money doing it. Hockey has taken me all over the world and I’ve met so many great people.”

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