Getting That Championship Feeling

AL-ibi

In two of his four years at Harvard, Grant Blair '86 goalied a Crimson hockey team to the finals of the NCAA Tournament, but on both occasions the icemen fell short of a national title.

After just one year of professional play, however, Blair already has experienced that championship feeling.

Blair just finished up his rookie campaign with the Salt Lake City Golden Eagles, the International Hockey League (IHL) minor league franchise of the Calgary Flames. A week ago, the Eagles closed out an improbable march to the Turner Cup with a 7-3 triumph over defending champion Muskegon, winning the series four games to two.

Blair's season started even before the opening of the Flames' training camp. "During the summer I went on the Nautilus and then did aerobic exercise," said Blair, a second team All-America selection his senior year. "I rollerskated or rode my bike for 40 minutes a day. I came to camp in the best shape of my life."

But there was a numbers problem in the Calgary organization. The Flames' primary farm team, the Moncton Golden Flames, is shared by the Boston Bruins, and there are very few spots for which to compete.

For example, among the goalies competing in Moncton were Doug Dadswell, Ken Heinz, Mike Vernon, and Blair from Calgary, along with Bill Ranford, Doug Keans, and Cleon Daskalaskis from Boston. In short, some serious number-crunching had to be done.

"I was undefeated and had the best goals-against in training camp," said Blair. "But Calgary thought it best for me to go to Salt Lake City."

Once there, Blair had to make all sorts of adjustments, personal as well as hockey-related. "It wasn't so much the fact that I played hockey for Harvard, but it was the fact that I graduated from Harvard," said Blair. "People wondered why I was playing in the International League and not getting a job. The Harvard reputation does tend to precede you."

But the adjustments that Blair had to make on the ice were made under more duress. Harvard's four-year netminder had a shaky first season for the Golden Eagles, appearing in 25 games, winning seven and losing 14 in the regular season.

"I was still adjusting to the [pro] game," said Blair. "A lot of that was right at the beginning when we were not doing well, and I never got on a roll because I never played two games in a row."

"The road trips were something I had to get used to," said Blair. "You play a game in Milwaukee, then take an eight-hour bus ride to Muksegon or Fort Wayne and get there at seven or eight in the morning, and have to play that night. We would have to go on 12 or 15-day road trips and play eight or nine games in that span."

After squeezing into the IHL playoffs, Salt Lake took its first two playoff series in fine form. But Blair was not a main reason. Salt Lake City had a hot playoff goalie in Heinz, an NHL veteran. The Eagles also had the three leading scorers in the playoffs. As a result, Blair sat on the bench.

But when Heinz pulled his groin before the first game of the Turner Cup Finals, the decision was made to put Blair--who hadn't played in a month--in the nets against the Muskegon Lumberjacks.

That night he faced 40 shots, and six of them went in--quite a bit more than the 2.72 goals per game Blair allowed in his senior campaign. The Eagles lost that contest, 6-3.

"That's one of the things I had to get adjusted to," said Blair. "They take a lot more shots and they take harder shots."

Despite the different tactics and speed of the IHL as opposed to collegiate hockey, Blair hasn't changed his goaltending style all that much.

"I guess I come out of the net more [to challenge the shooters]," said Blair. "I stay up more because if you go down, they burn you. I also spend more effort controlling rebounds."

Next year, Blair won't be in a position to try to work his way out of Salt Lake City to get to the Flames' main farm team. It is coming to him: Calgary is pulling out of Moncton altogether, and its main farm team will be Salt Lake City's Golden Eagles.

"I think there's a definite chance of making it," said Blair. "In the pros, you never expect a starting role or anticipate that you will make it to the parent club. You just work as hard as you can."

And with a little more hard work, Grant Blair can expect to spread that championship feeling.