The Canadian Hockey League’s controversial decision to ban European goaltenders in order to further develop Canadian goaltenders had both it’s up’s and down’s. While many complained that taking out some potential stars would dilute the quality of competition in the CHL, others embraced the idea of giving more chances to Canada’s next great young crop of puck-stoppers. CHL’ers weren’t the only ones to gain from the decision, as the resulting announcement meant that more Ontario Hockey League (OHL) quality goaltenders could make the jump from Junior A, Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), into major junior, meaning more room for younger goalies to develop in the OJHL, Central Canada Hockey League (CCHL) and more.
One of those goaltenders who were able to make the jump was Ben Blacker. Blacker, who just turned 17 this past April, caught the OJHL by surprise last season when he became one of the youngest starters in the entire league at 16 years old. Playing for the Milton Icehawks, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound Oakville, Ontario native is considered one of the top young goaltending prospects in all of Canada. Prior to making the full time jump to Canadian Junior A, Blacker was drafted in the seventh round of the OHL Priority Selection by the Ottawa 67’s back in 2013. Blacker was expected to go higher, but after already committing to Western Michigan prior to the draft, it already looked as though his plans for the long term future were set. How many people can say they had already chosen a university at 15 years old?
During the 2013-2014 campaign, Blacker took the OJHL by storm. While playing in 32 games with the Icehawks, who have hosted current NHLer’s John Tavares, Sam Gagner and Rick Nash, Blacker posted a 16-13-1 record while making an average of 33 stops a night. Playing on a team not known for its defense, Blacker was forced to steal a bunch of games in order to get his team into the league playoffs come March. That’s exactly what he did, which caught the eye of Team Canada executives, naming him to the Canada East U19 team at the recent Junior A championships, three years younger than starting goalie Jordan Piccolino. It wasn’t the only time he’s been apart of Team Canada in some capacity, suiting up for the U17 team as well as multiple junior development camps over the past couple seasons.
One thing that scouts have always mentioned about his game is that Blacker tracks the puck extremely well and never seems to be out of position, two traits similar to Ben’s favorite goaltender, Carey Price. For his small size (5’8), Blacker is very positionally sound and tracks the puck as strongly as any goalie in the draft. His lateral movement has always been one of his biggest assets since developing with the Brampton 45’s Min Midget AAA’s prior to signing with the Icehawks. A solid puck playing netminder, Blacker will occasionally travel out to play the puck without the restriction that the NHL puts on their goaltenders with the trapezoid and will rarely make mistakes when he does so.
At 5-foot-8, he doesn’t have ideal size, but he’s still young and has time to grow into a larger frame. At this point in his career, his short stature has proved to be his biggest weakness, but for what he lacks in size, he makes up for his incredible hands. On numerous occasions, he could be found diving across the crease to making outstanding glove hand stops, including this incredible catch in his first OJHL contest (he faced 51 shots).
For his future transition into the NCAA, which will begin in 2015-2016, Blacker will play for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders after his original USHL club, the Indiana Ice, closed their doors for the upcoming season. After the RoughRiders were eliminated in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, the club will go into this season with Blacker as well as experienced vet Danny Tirone in an attempt to solidify their crease for a season. A Univ. of New Hampshire commit, Tirone played in the USHL All-Star Game last season in just his first year in the league following a two year high school stint. The extra mentor-ship for Blacker should be a huge plus for the young goaltender, who didn’t get the chance to work with a veteran while playing for Milton last year. With the extra help, the odds of you hearing about Blacker in the future is very solid, and if you want to look even farther down the road, his brother Ian is already on the radar for the upcoming OHL Cup.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y31nGE2Eo0U&w=560&h=315]
Steven is a junior hockey reporter for the Oakville Blades of the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and also focuses on international hockey for his website, TheHockeyHouse.net. You can follow Steven on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.
Photo credit: Tim Bates/OJHL Images