Editor’s Note: An LA84 grant to the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society funded three reporters to attend, report and write stories from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
By Sam Dodge
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – Many areas claim to be the epicenter of American hockey.
There’s Boston, home to the Beanpot Classic and a massive bread-bowl full of elite college programs. Minnesota is the home of Herb Brooks, the man behind the “Miracle on Ice.” Detroit calls itself Hockeytown.
When it comes to the hockey hopefuls from Southern California, their roads to professional glory contain more obstacles than a late-night jaunt down CA-1.
Players like Cayla Barnes and Jonathan Blum, both Californians representing the United States men’s and women’s teams in the 2018 Winter Olympics, sacrificed themselves for higher purposes. The 5-foot-1 Barnes, who led the defense on the first women’s gold medal team since 1998, pushed doubts and distractions to the side on the way to South Korea. The diminutive Eastvale, Calif. native, had a choice between a biology major at Boston College and Olympic gold. She decided to take a year off to focus on her national teammates.
“So worth it,” she said, gold-medal shimeering around her neck, “I needed to be all-in for my team.” She will return to BC in August 2018 to restart her academic and athletic career. “I have six months until school starts again. I’m not spending that time relaxing.”
Her teammates, fresh off a 3-2 shootout thriller in the final game against rival Canada, can tell she’s already preparing for 2022 in China. “She’s small – and I can say that,” said forward Kendall Coyne, “but you can’t miss her. It doesn’t matter. It’s the size of the heart.”
How does she cope with checking players more than a half-foot taller than her? “I elbowed my way onto the ice with my four brothers,” she said. “I wanted to do what they did.”
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Her mom originally put her on the ice for figure skating at age two. This didn’t last. However, she realizes her time off was not possible without her parents. “I couldn’t be going to training camp in Florida,” she said, “or competing here in Korea without them. Mom and Dad are my rocks.”
As a parent himself, Jon Blum travels as far as Russia to provide for his wife Emilie and son Jackson. The former first-round NHL draft pick – and first first-rounder born and raised in California – plays defense for HC Sochi off the coast of the Black Sea. “No doubt it’s tough,” said Blum of his time away from family. “Being so far away, and having a 14-month old son. Sometimes, you just have to provide.” “It’s like a military deployment,” said Emilie. She would know. She’s a former intelligence analyst for the U.S. Army.
Jon, who hails from Long Beach, Calif., wields the fortitude necessary to endure the separation. Hazards in his life built him up to it. In April 2004, as a freshman at Trabucco Hills High School, he lost his twin sister Ashley to a family house fire. “When something like that happens,” he said, “you’re in shock. You’ve got to move on with your life, even when you’re still raw from what happened.”
How does one push through tragedy? Blum finds comfort between the boards. “When I’m on the ice, it doesn’t matter where I’m from, or what’s happened,” he said. “I just work hard and play.”
For a while, his determination didn’t seem to matter. He went from his early heights playing for the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild of the NHL to lesser known Russian teams such as Admiral Vladivostok. Some say fortune favors the prepared mind. Despite his tumble to the frozen tundra of Russia, fortune finally called.
The NHL declined to send any of its contracted players to South Korea, so Team USA scrambled to find capable skaters across the globe. Enter Blum. “You certainly can’t complain about representing your country,” he said. It’s fitting that the Blum family both got to serve their country. Jon wore red, white and blue, while Emilie wore fatigues.
Despite the distance, Jon doubts they would trade America for Russia. “Are we really going to get it better than SoCal?” he asked rather rhetorically.
While Blum has a choice in country, Barnes’ future far more refined. After Boston College, she can either opt for just a regular job, or combine it with a low-paying contract in the National Women’s Hockey League. The average contracts of the NWHL are between $10,000 and $15,000. For Barnes, it’s four years down the road once college is over. “I would definitely love the opportunity,” she said, “but I’m ready to focus on biology again.”
“Not just as an American, or a women, but as a Californian, I feel a bit responsible in helping the sport grow.”
Many see Los Angeles and Southern California as a life destination – the proverbial California dream. Barnes and Blum are fighting for as many options as possible.