The funny thing is, he wasn’t even drinking when he hit bottom. He was too depressed, too twisted. He got on a bicycle, wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, and he rode to the hockey office and burst through the door. “I am God!” he hollered. “I am God!” Then he went into the street, and ran back and forth like the lost soul he’d become. “I’m rich . . . ha! Hee! I’m a rich man!”
The office staff stared in disbelief.
Someone called the police.
They say this kind of thing happens around the holidays, depression and alcohol and a sense of loss. John Blum, yelling that he was rich, was anything but. It was Christmastime, and in the previous 11 months, he had lost his wife, his children, his reputation, his home. Now — as he climbed atop his boss’ van and lay there, spread-eagle, as sirens whirred in the distance
— he was about to lose his freedom.
Welcome to the last drop. This is the deep end of that giant beer bottle that hockey players suck on from their junior days, imitating their heroes, guzzling cold ones and going home sloshed. John Blum had been a hockey success story, a kid who made it all the way to the NHL, earned the six-figure salary, played alongside Wayne Gretzky, went to the playoffs, married Mark Messier’s sister, lived the life.
Now he was semi-naked on top of a van.
Welcome to the last drop.
“I am God! I am God!”
They threw the cuffs on God and took him to a hospital.
Bad start to a new year
“Next thing I knew, it was New Year’s Eve,” Blum says now, softly, dumping a packet of sugar into his black coffee. He wears his workout clothes and no shoes, sitting in the simple office of a small hockey arena. He has the body of an aging athlete, a face between handsome and howling, and he speaks quickly, remembering last year as if retelling a bad movie.
“I was in that psychiatric hospital with people who were really crazy. At midnight, there were guys sticking light bulbs in their ears, or putting ribbons on their heads. One guy just kept mumbling, ‘I wanna go home, I wanna go home,’ for like 12 hours straight. ‘I wanna go home. I wanna go home.’ …
“I kept telling the doctors, “Let me out. What am I doing in here?’ . . .
“That’s how I rung in the New Year.”
He shakes his head, pushes a hand through his thinning brown hair, and smiles the smile that has always gotten him in trouble, the Good-Time-Johnny smile, the “Aw, hell, let’s do it” smile. You put this smile in pro hockey and toss in a bottle of booze and, forget it, the party never stops.
Until it explodes.
Which is sort of how John Blum landed back here, Fraser Ice Arenas, a local rink just down the road from where he grew up in Warren. He plays for the Detroit Falcons, Colonial League, riding the buses to Flint and Thunder Bay, dressing with kids who can only dream of going where John Blum has been.
Of course, they dream of what they see in his scrapbook, the photos from the Oilers, the Bruins, the Capitals, the Red Wings — “Look, Ray Bourque, Kevin Hatcher, Yzerman, Gretzky, you played with those guys?” The hard lines around Blum’s eyes — the kids don’t want to know about those. The lessons he has learned? Well, in sports, you don’t preach. He is 35, nearly twice their age, yet they still shout out “Blummer! Yo, Blummer!”
Hockey does that. Gives you kiddie nicknames — Stevie, Jonesy, Blummer —
and that is part of the problem.
One day you wake up and you’re not a kid anymore.
But you’re still acting like one.
Top of the world
“Who’s that girl?” Blum had asked once, looking at a photo in his coach’s office. This was in Moncton, New Brunswick, 1982, the minor leagues, and Blum, cocky and lovable, was on his way up. Anything seemed possible. Even the girl in the photo.
“That’s Coach Messier’s daughter,” he was told. “She’s coming to visit here next week. You better stay away.”
Blum grinned. “Betcha 20 bucks I’m dating her before she leaves.”
And he would win the bet — but never collect the money. For Blum, it was always more about fun than money anyhow. He charmed Jennifer Messier the way he charmed everyone, made her laugh, got her to stay. Soon Blum, the life of every party, was in the NHL, playing with the Edmonton Oilers, then the Boston Bruins. Less than a year later he was walking down the aisle with the girl from the picture, and the biggest stars in hockey were wearing tuxedos and shaking his hand. Gretzky. Coffey. Mark Messier, his new brother-in-law.
“I was an NHL player,” Blum recalls. “I felt invincible.”
Why not? He had risen from the Detroit suburbs, gone to Michigan without a scholarship, walked on the hockey team, become a star defenseman. Now he was trading hits with the NHL elite. True, he was hardly an All-Star, more like a journeyman, back and forth from majors to minors. But he would last eight years in the NHL, four teams, reach the playoffs several times, including 1985, when the Bruins played the Canadiens in the hallowed Montreal Forum.
“The best game we ever played. I can still see it, Game 4, we were losing,
4-1, in our building, and we came back to win, 7-6. Nobody gave us a chance. But we fought back. Then we went to the Forum and had it 0-0 until the final minute . . .”
He pauses, his eyes so far-away you can hear the blades scraping ice.
“And then they scored with 51 seconds left. Naslund to Tremblay back to Naslund . . . goal. We lost, 1-0.”
He sips his coffee.
“Yeah,” he sighs.
So much for the thrills.
It all crashed around him
Now for the agony. When the NHL no longer needed him, Blum still wanted what most players want, to hang around the game, somewhere, somehow, to coach, even at the lowest level. He would go to Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, the ends of the Earth. But his wife, used to the comforts of the NHL — and, according to some acquaintances, used to measuring success by brother Mark’s high standards
— wanted no part of the nomadic, carry- your-own-bags minor league life.
“She wanted me to take a 9-to-5 job, be a salesman, stay in one place,” Blum says. They had a daughter, Rachel, who was 3 years old. So Blum tried. Telemarketing. Real estate. He didn’t last long. And his drinking didn’t help. He had been fairly disciplined about alcohol in the NHL — meaning he didn’t drink before games. Never mind that he saw teammates throwing up during
practice, still hung over from the night before. Never mind that he’d been stopped many times on the roads, swerving, under the influence, but cops would recognize him and wave him on.
Back then he was in The Show. You can play? You’re excused. The great lie hid inside the dark glass bottles.
Until one night, in January 1993, less than a year after he’d retired from hockey. He went to a Boston party with a woman he’d met in a bar. By this point, he and his wife were separated — even though she was three months pregnant. And the woman in the bar treated Blum like a star. He missed that. She wore a mini-skirt. He liked that. They went to the party, they drank. They went to a bar, drank some more.
He was driving home in his Chevy van, it was dark and cold and he was woozy and he sped around a curve on Storrow Drive, which snakes along the Charles River, and . . . bang!
He plowed into the back of a police car.
Glass smashed. Metal crunched. “It happened so fast . . .” Blum says, like they always say when life goes to hell.
Good-time Johnny’s Got the Blues.
A family outcast
A police officer, sitting in the car, was injured. TV crews arrived. Blum and the woman in the mini-skirt were all over the news. He was arrested, humiliated. Two days later, his wife left with their baby girl — “She said she couldn’t take it any more” — and returned to the sanctuary of the Messier family in Hilton Head, S.C.
And Blum began his fast slide down the rainbow.
He found work in a bar, a stupid move. He’d drink an entire bottle of vodka in one evening. On some nights he’d down as many as 15 beers. When hockey players were around, he drank to remember. And when he wasn’t welcome for the birth of his second child, he drank to forget.
“That really hurt me. I wanted to be there so badly. But the (Messier) parents were pretty ticked off at me. And I didn’t want to do anything to hurt the health of the child, you know?”
It wasn’t until three weeks later that he got to see his newborn daughter. He flew to South Carolina, and his wife drove to his hotel.
“I told her I was sorry. She said thank God you’re all right and the baby’s all right. She was such a beautiful kid. We named her Kathleen. We had a couple hours together.”
He sighs now, takes another sip of coffee.
“That was a pretty good day.”
And then came the rest.
‘Then came the . . . incident’
Blum bounced around. Worked some hockey camps. Kept pouring alcohol — for others, for himself. Separated from his children, and denied visitation, he was desperate to stay with hockey, the only thing that gave him a sense of self-worth. He went to Florida and took a job as player-coach with the Daytona Beach Sun Devils, in something called the Sunshine League.
“He was a good coach,” admits Doris Delannoy, the executive secretary and wife of one of the owners. “Everybody liked him. But then came the . . . incident.”
It was December. The holidays. Blum had actually stopped drinking, briefly, trying to clean himself up, bury himself in his coaching. But the same way he capped the bottle, he also capped his depression. Hockey players, NHL players, aren’t supposed to cry. “I never allowed myself that. I never allowed myself to talk about it with anyone.”
“You gotta understand,” says Mike Rataj, a Detroit lawyer and Blum’s best friend since childhood, “not seeing his kids was killing him. We all come from neighborhood families where you go over to each other’s houses at Christmas. And here’s Blummer, all alone, in Florida.”
This is the other side of the pro sports high life. You’re 34, your glory is behind you, your marriage is dust, your children are out of reach. Seeking comfort, you go to church, midnight mass, and you see all these normal families, holding hands.
John Blum snapped.
“I am God! I am God! I am God! . . .”
He’s come home
When he got out of the hospital — after two weeks — he tried once again to see his children. But his wife asked the NHL to get involved. Before he knew it, Blum was whisked to Hazelton, a rehab facility in Minnesota which has housed many a famous athlete — including Bob Probert, the hero to so many boozy Red Wings fans. There, roomed with a former banker, in a small space that looked out on snow and trees, Blum began to face life after the cheering stops.
“The first meeting, where you stand up and say ‘I am an alcoholic’? I stood up and said I’m a hockey player, and I’m here because I got to do whatever the bleep I wanted to. It was carte blanche. You go to bars, people buy you drinks. You get pulled over, they let you off. You’re invincible.”
He said this word, “invincible” in a room full of addicts. When the irony echoed off the walls, he had taken the first step toward recovery.
Which brings us to where he is today. Back home in Warren. Living humbly in the basement of his old house on Palomino Street. Once he made $140,000 a year in the NHL. Now he gets $350 a week, and bus trips that take up to 17 hours.
And yet, a new start is a new start. Blum — who never figured to play again — loves being a Falcons defenseman, teaching the kids the NHL tricks, being the inspirational leader of the team, even if they do call him
He leaves tickets each night for his father and his sister, which lessens the sting of not leaving them for his wife and children. Although the Blums officially divorced in July, he writes to his oldest daughter, Rachel, and she sends him drawings of giraffes. He saw his kids four months ago, and plans to see them again soon. “I’ve come full circle,” he says. “I’ve come home.”
Understand this: John Blum is not alone. There are countless former athletes out there, left spinning when the sport is yanked from under them like some magician’s tablecloth. And every wink at their drinking, every excuse made for their behavior when they were big time, is like a weight on their ankles now. Many end up broke. Many end up divorced. Some end up dead.
“It’s funny, I really did used to feel like I was a God,” Blum says.
“Just a man. A humble one.”
What’s that old expression? Good to the last drop? Blum, who has been sober since February, lifts his cup, then, perhaps practicing a new habit, lowers it and throws it away. Good-time Johnny Pays His Dues. Sometimes, the good can’t start until the last drop is really gone.
I caddied with John when we were 13 and 14 respectively at Red Run Country Club in Royal Oak. Probably half those guys were jerks, but John was one of the nicest guys I ever met there. If Mike Rataj is who I think he is, he was a caddie there too, and easy to see why those guys would be best friends.