Joseph Blandisi stands out on the Barrie Colts’ left wing. He isn’t necessarily a flashy player, but he is a noticeably hard worker. He gets the puck to his teammates, doesn’t avoid the corners, and can change the momentum of the game when it matters most. He has all the pieces an overage offender should have: a strong power play, good penalty skill, and a desire to be a vocal leader in the dressing room. He can skate quickly through any zone, but just a few months ago, he couldn’t skate at all.
Shortly after being traded to the Colts from Ottawa at the deadline last January, the Markham, Ont., native was diagnosed with Coxsackievirus, a viral infection that, in Blandisi’s case, included symptoms of severe dizziness and blurry vision.
“I couldn’t drive for a couple months,” he says. “Walking down the stairs, I’d lose my balance. I went on the ice a little before playoffs, and I couldn’t even stand on my feet unless I was touching the boards. I couldn’t hold myself up. It was like I almost forgot how to play.”
He suited up for 10 games before the illness completely took over, but he started to feel it as early as six games in.
“My agent called me and asked if I had been partying the night before, because it looked like I was drunk while I was playing,” he recalls. “And that’s how it felt, too. My vision was blurry. I was seeing two pucks.”
Blandisi was forced to miss the end of the season, including the playoff run. It was a big letdown for the Colts, who’d sent centre Erik Bradford to Ottawa, where he would eventually play top-line minutes with overage player Ryan Van Stralen and superstar rookie Travis Konecny, in that the hopes that Blandisi would better complement top-ranked prospects Aaron Ekblad and Brendan Lemieux, veteran point producers Zach Hall and Mitchell Theoret, and of course the potential future forefront of the Detroit Red Wings, Andreas Athanasiou, who wound up a top-five scorer with 95 points.
For Blandisi, the move to Barrie meant he could finally play on a contending team, as the Colts were on their way to another strong finish in the OHL’s Eastern Conference. Having been drafted 162nd overall by the Colorado Avalanche in 2012, there was a lot on the line for Blandisi. It should have been an important, telling post-season. He had been traded around twice in the past couple seasons—from Owen Sound to Ottawa, and now to Barrie. Ottawa 67′s coach Chris Byrne had done him a favour: Blandisi would be playing in games that counted—a surefire way to grab Colorado’s attention.
Instead, he had to experience the playoffs from the stands. And after awhile, even that became too difficult. “By the end, I just stopped going to games because it was a tough environment to be around. I was watching the guys and not being part of it.”
The Colts’ post-season ended when they were defeated in the second round by the North Bay Battalion. Blandisi’s presence on the ice was missed, and he, along with the rest of the team, were left wondering if he could have been the difference in that series.
“He was a dynamic player and a big part of the power play. He found chemistry with the guys immediately,” says Mike Rosati, the Colts’ assistant coach. “It was frustrating in the sense that we brought him in to be part of a long playoff run, and he wasn’t able to be a part of it.”
As Blandisi’s hopes for return eventually thinned out, so did his chance of signing with the Avalanche. Colorado didn’t come knocking.
It took him five months to fully recover: five months of therapy, working out to maintain his cardio, and simply waiting. It was a harder than usual summer, as he hit the ice at least five times a week to stay in shape.
But getting back on track came naturally, and NHL squads took notice. In July, he was invited to Winnipeg’s development camp, where Barrie head coach Dale Hawerchuk says he had no problem competing with the team’s draft picks. He was also invited to play with the Buffalo Sabres in their rookie tournament in Traverse City, which provided him with the larger professional stage he didn’t end up getting with Colorado.
“He’ll be one of our leaders for sure. He’s got a good experience of the league, a real good skill set, good shot, and he works hard on and off the ice,” says Hawerchuk. “That’s a good formula for success.”
His opportunity to make an impact is amplified this year. With seven points in his first three games, he’s already off to a good start. As one of the older guys, he can use his experience to help the younger players in more ways than one.
“I’m a strong believer in my work ethic, so that’s what I try to show them as much as I can,” he says. “I’ve been here awhile, more than most people, and I’ve been through a lot of tough games. If they get injured, I can help them through it, because last year was obviously a rough patch for me. Now I feel like I’ve been through it all so I know how to handle myself.”
Instead of fretting over what could have been, Blandisi is focusing on the fact that he’s a free agent. “Now that I’m better, I believe everything happens for a reason, and maybe Colorado wasn’t the right spot for me,” he says.
His final year in junior isn’t going to be about making up for lost time. Instead, he’s picking up where he left off. “Last year there was only one team looking at me and now there are 29,” he says. “An overage season is never a bad thing.”