Nicolas Blanchard probably shouldn’t be alive.
Yet, here he is. He flashes his toothless grin as he exits the ice surface at PNC Arena.
Just over four years ago, there were no smiles as Blanchard lay helpless in an overturned bus, a guard rail having sliced his left side open. Extensive injuries would leave him hospitalized for three weeks afterward.
Would he play hockey again? As is his character, he was determined to fight back, but he was happy to just be breathing in the sterile air of a medical facility.
Through months of rehabilitation, fight back he did. The Granby, Que., native returned to playing hockey just months later and this month, fulfilled his dream of playing in the NHL. Earning a recall on April 10, Blanchard has played his first four games in the NHL, including a match in Ottawa amongst 30-some friends and family.
Roads taken to the NHL are varied; some are rather direct, and some, more winding. Perhaps none is quite as winding as the snowy, treacherous road of Blanchard’s journey.
Yet, here he is.
Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009. The Albany River Rats dropped a 3-2 decision to the Lowell Devils in a shootout. Blanchard put in a noticeable performance, tussling with Matthew Spiller in the second period and tying the game 2-2 at the eight minute mark of the third period with his seventh goal of the season.
The team had a three-hour bus trip ahead, traversing Massachusetts before arriving in eastern New York.
This type of meandering travel was the norm in the AHL, though as the night unfolded, it became anything but.
Not even an hour outside of Lowell, the team bus malfunctioned. It pulled off the road and into a parking lot, where the team would wait for two hours as a replacement bus from Albany was en route.
“It gets there, we get on the bus and we’re all so excited because you finally get to go back home,” Patrick Dwyer said.
It was, by then, in the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 19 as the new bus headed west along Interstate 90.
A few hours down the road, weather conditions in the Berkshire Mountain stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike had turned icy, the winding, isolated roads, slick. It was after 3 a.m. when the bus slid out of control.
“I was sleeping, and I heard a weird sound,” Blanchard recalled.
“I was one of the few guys awake,” Dwyer said. “The bus driver yelled out a couple profanities, and he didn’t know what was going on.”
The bus collided with the guardrail and rolled onto its side.
“The next thing you know, we’re all crawling out of the hatch,” Dwyer said. “You’re in shock, but you’re making sure everyone’s accounted for and assessing injuries.”
“I opened my eyes and saw one of my roommates in the air. I woke up on the floor bleeding,” Blanchard said. “I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t move my arms. Both my shoulders popped out.”
Blanchard’s left side had been sliced open by the guard rail, which came through the window adjacent to his seat. His back was also cut up.
“I just prayed to God,” he said. “I was talking to God a lot. I was just saying, ‘Protect me. I want to stay alive.’”
Teammates who weren’t as severely incapacitated were able to help him out of the bus but not to safety.
The road was still bustling with traffic, mainly semi-trucks, even at 3:30 in the morning. Blanchard said as soon as he exited the bus, a semi careened just feet from him. Fueled by adrenaline, he ran. He then blacked out and woke up in an ambulance.
Once in the hands of capable medical professionals, the injuries, though serious, extensive and gruesome, were not life-threatening for Blanchard. But, he did wonder about his career.
“I remember sitting on the bed at the hospital. I was so shocked, so nervous wondering what would happen with my career,” he said. “But at that moment, I was praying a lot, and I just wanted to heal, and then after that I’d look at the future.”
Blanchard remained hospitalized for about a month. The laceration in his side was left open for weeks in order to avoid enclosing an infection under the skin.
“It was so gross,” Blanchard said. “I had to put gauze inside like twice a day. It was the most painful thing ever.”
Once healed, Blanchard faced a steep uphill climb to sustain his hopes of playing in the NHL. That was his dream, and he wasn’t going to let an accident derail it.
“The organization really took care of me. They made sure everything was OK,” he said. “They really did a lot for me. I saw a lot of physicians and specialists, and I want to thank them for that.”
At the end of July, just five months after the horrific accident, Blanchard was skating again. Come September, he participated in the Hurricanes’ training camp and skated in a preseason game before being reassigned to Albany.
From a brush with death to a full recovery in well less than a calendar year, Blanchard was as hungry as ever.
“It was a long journey, but after the bus accident, I think I really stepped up. I wanted to show Carolina my character,” he said. “I pushed myself to be in the best shape I could for training camp.”
Blanchard skated in 76 regular-season games for Albany in 2009-10, posting 22 points and career highs in goals (14) and penalty minutes (171). In the summer of 2010, he was rewarded with a two-year contract.
Blanchard logged 140 regular-season games and 39 points over the following two seasons with Charlotte. In the Checkers’ 2011 postseason run to the Eastern Conference Final, Blanchard recorded two goals, three assists and 16 penalty minutes in 16 games. He ranked second among Charlotte skaters in penalty minutes in the 2011-12 season, marking the fourth straight campaign he has ranked among the top three in penalty minutes for Carolina’s AHL affiliates.
In the summer of 2012, Blanchard was again signed for two years. Then-Director of Hockey Operations Ron Francis noted Blanchard’s physicality, reliability and leadership on and off the ice. The Hurricanes’ sixth-round and 192nd-overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft was continuing to develop, Francis added.
Fulfilling a Dream
Approaching the last few weeks of the regular season in his sixth full professional campaign, Blanchard was called into the office of Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels.
“I was like, ‘You want to show me video of the last game?’ but finally he put a smile on his face and said I’m getting my chance,” Blanchard said, the toothless grin reappearing. “I was pretty excited.”
The 25-year-old forward raced to his apartment, grabbed his things and hopped on the road to Raleigh, just in time for the team’s afternoon flight to the nation’s capital. After 439 career regular-season and playoff games in the AHL, Blanchard was in “the show.”
Blanchard made an immediate impact, recording a fighting major in each of his first three games. It’s not that he was looking to throw hands, but he knows his role and is comfortable in it.
“I’m not here to score three goals a night. I’m here to play physically, play with intensity, play well defensively and be a brick on the ice,” he said. “I want to stick around and prove that I’m ready for the NHL.”
“What he’s shown is that he’s on board. He believes in what we’re doing and he plays within his limitations; he’s not trying to be a player he’s not,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “He’s real simple, real direct, plays hard and plays physical. And that’s all we ask of him.”
The Winding, Snowy, Treacherous Road
For Blanchard, the road to the NHL has been a lengthy journey filled with hope, desire, perseverance, setbacks and tragedy.
Yet, here he is.
“It’s great to see Blanch come from looking at him after the accident and the wound he had in his side to where he’s at now,” Dwyer said. “I don’t think there was ever a doubt in anyone’s mind who knew Blanchard that he was going to battle his way back and be fine. It’s just the kind of character kid he is. Here he is, and I couldn’t be more excited for him.”
The experience gave Blanchard the determination and motivation to see his dream though. Even staring down pugilists on skates, he won’t shy away.
“I almost saw death, so I’m not really scared when I’m on the ice,” he said.
That bitter, bleak night on the Mass Pike didn’t change Blanchard – he’s still the affable guy with a French Canadian curl in his speech – but it did make him view his life and career through a different lens.
“For me, it was like a wake-up call to enjoy life,” he said. “I wanted to accomplish my dream of playing in the NHL. I never gave up, and today I’m in the locker room with the boys enjoying my time. I want to make sure I can stay here as long as I can.”
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