Blake Sloan is starting another chapter in his career as the new captain of the Griffins
Story and photo by Mark Newman
As a man of letters, Blake Sloan has chosen to redefine the role of a hockey player in his own special way.
In his younger years, he was the puckish protagonist the hyperactive little boy who usually found himself in the care of school disciplinariasn. Eventually, he grew into the highly principled student-athlete, the compassionate citizen whose generosity and leadership earned the respect of all those around him.
Indeed, being selected captain of the Griffins speaks volumes for Sloans education away from the rink, more so than it is any testament to his on-ice abiltiies. It is his comprehension of whats important, of what it takes to be a winner in life, not just hockey that sets him apart.
Having a C on my sweater doesnt change me, Sloan says. Id still be doing the same exact stuff that Ive always done.
Its that stuff that makes him, well, so novel.
The son of Richard and Judi Sloan, he grew up in the northern Chicago suburb of Morton Grove. His father was a corporate headhunter and his mother a physical education teacher at Niles West High School.
My dad would say theres a triangle in life, with athletics, academics and girls, Sloan recalls. According to my dad, the key to the triangle is that you could only play two sides and academics was always going to be one of them.
From the start, his parents preached the importance of hard work, not too surprising given his fathers success in business and his mothers accolades as the 1992-93 Illinois Teacher of the Year.
Even if you werent the brightest bulb in the universe, my parents felt that if you put forth a good effort and you did everything you could to improve your scores on tests or papers, you should do fine, Sloan attests.
A visit to his junior high school by a DePaul University basketball player Sloan has long forgotten his name made an even more profound impression.
His message was that, in spite of his athletic ability, he never would have been able to get into DePaul without good grades, Sloan says. I remember thinking that if I ever had the chance, Id love to be able to stand in front of kids like that.
At the time, Sloan was probably more interested in hitting the boards than the books. He loved hockey. And yet it was his own athletic aspirations that drove him to turn a new page.
I certainly didnt get straight As, but I didnt get many Cs either and if I did, I wasnt real happy, he says. Its the same reason that I still take pride in my game on the ice, even to this day.
His learning, however, was never limited to the classroom or the hockey rink. For example, he loved playing baseball and he set his sights on becoming the starting shortstop for the Niles West High team.
My mom introduced me as an eighth grader to the baseball coach and he had enough foresight to let me field ground balls with the teams shortstop, Sloan recalls.
Jeff Richards was the captain of the baseball team a stud, according to Sloan the prototypically popular high school athlete who starred in basketball, football and any other sport he put his mind to playing.
The coach figured I might learn something from Jeff and Ill always remember how Jeff embraced the idea. He made me feel welcome by his willingness to help me. He critiqued me to a certain extent, but he also was complimentary.
Sloan played for the freshman team at Niles West and performed well enough to be promoted to the varsity squad for the playoffs. Jeff continued helping me and soon I was turning double plays with Mag Ramon, the teams second baseman.
Richards and Sloan talked about playing summer ball together. As a freshman, youre so impressionable, Sloan says, and I was in complete awe. This kid was taking a lot of time in helping me.
Ultimately, Sloan realized that playing both baseball and hockey would be too difficult. He chose hockey.
Richards went ahead and played in a summer league, which led to tragic consequences. He was killed when he was struck by lightning during a game. His death sent shockwaves through the school, where an award for perseverance is still given in his name.
I try to take positives away from everything, and if anyone epitomized the idea of being helpful to a teammate when he didnt have to be, it was Jeff, says Sloan, who wears the number 11 in honor of his former teammate.
Sloan left Niles West to attend the prestigious Tabor Academy prep school in Massachusetts, guided in equal measure by the influence of his parents and the examples of the DePaul basketball player and Jeff Richards.
At Tabor, he was selected as a proctor (leader of the dorm) and volunteered as a guide for the prep schools visitors. I wasnt a great test taker, so I knew I needed to do extracurricular things and make sure my grades were superb.
Never much of a reader up to that point, he discovered the joys of literature during his senior year. I really enjoyed the dialogue and exchange that you could have in an English class, he says.
Youd go home and read something and have this point of view, and the next day the kid sitting next to you might have a completely different understanding. I loved the debate.
At Michigan, Sloan found himself gravitating even more to the study of language. I wasnt too sure about business and I certainly wasnt going to be a math genius, he says, figuring there wasnt any harm in learning to communicate and write better.
Sloan became a voracious reader, devouring pages like the Dickens. During one semester, he read 19 books in three months, not to mention the papers and discussions that followed.
I really enjoyed Shakespeare, actually, he says. I know that sounds weird, but he was such an amazing writer and every time you read his works you get something different out of them.
He made a conscious effort to do well in all of his classes, but especially his English courses. I was one of the few athletes in the department and I didnt want to hear somebody saying that they had that hockey jerk in their class and that he didnt know Frost from Sandburg, he says.
I tried to be anonymous, get my work done and do everything to the best of my ability.
But asking Sloan to stay quiet is like asking Tolstoy to keep it short. He wanted to share his new love of the language and when a teacher asked him to come to her class, he could hardly say no.
The excitement and enthusiasm of her students was amazing, he says. I went back a second and third time and pretty soon I was getting my roommates involved, which got me to thinking.
Sloan wondered whether student-athletes at Michigan were missing an opportunity to reach out to youngsters, much like the DePaul basketball player had once done at his junior high. Here we were, sitting at one of the greatest universities in the nation, and we had all these resources in terms of athletes.
Never one to miss an opportunity to make an impact, Sloan organized SHARE (Student-Athletes Help Achieve Reading Excellence), a reading program that scheduled player appearances at various Ann Arbor elementary schools.
We had athletes like Brian Griese, Marty Turco, Brendan Morrison and Dugan Fife without those guys, it would have been nearly impossible to get it launched, says Sloan, who also planned trips to Michigans C.S. Mott Childrens Hospital.
Meanwhile, Sloan helped Michigan to three regular season Central Collegiate Hockey Association titles (1994, 1995 and 1997). In addition, the Wolverines went to the NCAA Frozen Four tournament in each of his last three years, winning the NCAA Championship in 1996.
But it was his work off the ice that seemed to get the attention.
He won the 1996-97 Hockey Humanitarian Award, given to college hockeys finest citizen. In addition to SHARE, he also became involved with a drug education program and co-chaired a charity auction to raise money for paralyzed Boston University player Travis Roy.
When he entered the pro ranks, Sloan continued his philanthropic pursuits. He was the spokesman for the Dallas Stars Foundations Stick With Reading program, then helped the Columbus Blue Jackets start a reading program of their own.
The Blue Jackets Book Jackets program was a literacy initiative that involved Half Price Books and Chipotle restaurants in the Columbus area. The response was awesome, he says.
Its all about making a difference, which explains why Sloan still feels empowered to accomplish more than anyone might expect. Its a mission that starts with his teammates.
Everyone asks me about my leadership style and I say: I dont know I dont really have one, he says. I just want these guys to be able to say that Blake took the time to know me as a person as opposed to just a hockey player.
Being single in a professional environment is tough because its a lonely world. When I came out of college, it was such a shock to me. Youre playing with all your buddies and all of a sudden youre a pro and thats gone.
You go to practice and then youre back at your place and you stare at the wall because you dont know what to do from noon to six. If I can help those guys feel less vulnerable and more a part of the team, thats half the battle.
And so Sloan invites teammates to dinner or to the movies. If nothing else, they can always share their impressions of a good book. I find myself going back to books that I read in college, he says. Its amazing what you can get out of a book when someone doesnt have a gun to your head.
Nobody forced Sloan to give up playing defense, either, but he admits that he wasnt exactly enamored with the idea.
Undrafted by the NHL, he began his professional career in Houston, where he played for the Aeros during the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.
I was two days from becoming a teacher, says Sloan, whose sister, Tracy is a teacher like his mom, grandmother and an aunt. I went to Houston on a tryout contract as a favor to Cam Stewart, Brian Wiseman and David Oliver (all ex-Wolverines playing for the Aeros).
There were 15 defensemen competing for one spot and I made the team as the seventh defenseman. I didnt play very much, but I kept my head down and kept working at it.
Eventually, then-Aeros head coach Dave Tippett recognized that Sloan showed potential as a forward. We had a game in Las Vegas where there was one guy suspended, another guy hurt and three guys in the penalty box. He said, Sloan, I need you at forward.
I played there during the final period of the game and had two assists. I guess he liked the way I played because thats when he got the funny idea that I should play a few more games at forward.
Ultimately, it earned him a ticket to the NHL. After splitting his second season between defense and forward, he caught the eyes of Dallas Stars general manager Bob Gainey, who signed him to a free agent contract.
Sloan ended up playing 14 regular season games and 19 of 21 playoff contests for the Stars, who defeated Buffalo to win the 1999 Stanley Cup. It was a total whirlwind, he says. I didnt know where I was.
Five years later, Sloan feels hes still learning what it takes to play forward in the offensive zone. I miss the blue line a little bit because its more of a cerebral position, he says. But I have to say I like the action at forward a little more.
Playing forward is more instinctive and Id rather give a hit than get crushed all the time. I guess Id rather be the hammer than the nail, if you know what I mean.