Last January, when Penn State came to Ann Arbor, then-freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg was on the ice for his first shift just under five minutes into the game. Within moments of taking the ice, he laid a hit that Michigan coach Mel Pearson can’t forget.
Forward Liam Folkes came up through the neutral zone and lost the puck as he crossed center ice. Just as Folkes turned to look for the puck, Blankenburg stepped into a hip check that sent all 182 pounds of Folkes flying across the ice — knocking off his helmet and one of his gloves.
Blankenburg, meanwhile, calmly stood up and rejoined the play. The hit set the tone for what eventually became a Michigan 5-1 win, and made it clear to everyone in the building that Blankenburg was unafraid to play physical hockey.
When asked about Blankenburg’s physical play on Wednesday, Pearson brought up the hit from last year’s game against the Nittany Lions without prompting.
“He’s got a little nasty streak to him,” Pearson said. “I still remember the hit last year where he popped the Liam Folkes kid from Penn State on a real good hit. But he’s a bundle of energy and a bundle of grit. You’d like about 10 to 12 guys like him on your team.”
At 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, Blankenburg is the Wolverines’ smallest defenseman by two inches and about 15 pounds — but he doesn’t play like it. In nearly every game, he finds himself at the center of chippy moments or involved in skirmishes with the other team. And sometimes, Blankenburg will hit a player hard enough that looks like it came from a player twice his size.
Blankenburg credits the foundation of his scrappiness to growing up with his brother Alex, who is three years older than him. It’s a cliché that older brothers play rough on their younger brothers, but it was reality for Blankenburg as a child.
“Whether playing mini sticks in the basement or just playing basketball in the driveway, he would always make sure I wasn’t … soft,” Blankenburg said. “He would always make sure that I’m tough, so I guess you could say I get that from him, and especially my dad, too.”
His penchant for physical play has sent Blankenburg to the penalty box a few more times in his career that Pearson would prefer, but Pearson is clear that he’d rather have a player that goes too far at times than one that he has to constantly encourage to play with an edge.
Blankenburg certainly has an edge, and now is tasked with finding a balance between playing tough and staying out of the penalty box. Last year, he took just six penalties in 36 games, but Pearson would like to see him find even more control of his emotions.
“For the most part, yes (he’s composed),” Pearson said. “Every once in a while, he’ll just go off the deep end and you’re wondering where his brain went. … That’s where you have to have emotional control, and it’s hard, because of guys like that who play so hard. It can be difficult, especially when it gets physical and he’s trying to play physical, too. We just have to remind him that we need him on the ice, not in the box.”
This weekend, the Wolverines host Lake Superior State, a team that’s known for playing a very physical style of hockey. It’s exactly the kind of game Blankenburg likes, and it presents a test of his work on maintaining his composure.
“Guys are going to try to get under your skin, and that’s really the point of the game,” Blankenburg said. “I think you’ve just gotta keep your composure and just play hard.”