Colin Blackwell’s contract with Blackhawks is the latest height in journey from hockey’s brink

At Harvard, lingering concussion symptoms made Blackwell believe his hockey career was over. Now, he’s joining the Hawks as an established, versatile NHL forward.

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Colin Blackwell skates for the Kraken last season.

Colin Blackwell signed with the Blackhawks in July after spending most of last season on the Kraken.

Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The contract Colin Blackwell signed with the Blackhawks in July — two years at $1.2 million annually — made no ripples in the NHL’s summer news cycle.

For Blackwell, however, that payday was the payoff for more than a ‘‘little bit of perseverance.’’

At 29, Blackwell finally is locked into a fully one-way contract for the first time. It’s with the team nearest his adopted hometown of Milwaukee, where he lives in the offseasons with his fiancée. And it came almost a decade after the most difficult period of his life, during which he not only figured but accepted his hockey career was over.

‘‘It meant the world,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve obviously been working really hard for a long time. And it’s something players always strive for, no matter the obstacles that get in their way.’’

Blackwell, a native of Massachusetts, was drafted by the Sharks in the seventh round in 2011 and followed that up with a promising freshman season at Harvard.

During his 2012-13 sophomore year, however, two concussions suffered months apart left him stuck with symptoms of post-concussion syndrome and eventually kept him away from the rink for two full years.

He was forced to withdraw from college for the 2013-14 school year and, upon returning in 2014-15, was thinking more about acquiring his Harvard degree and finding a job than lacing up skates again.

‘‘My focus in the beginning was trying to get back to playing hockey,’’ Blackwell said. ‘‘But as time went on, I became more focused on getting back to being myself, to being a normal human being and to what I used to be when I first stepped on campus. I was trying to get rid of the headaches and vertigo and different feelings that stuff can bring on.

‘‘Hockey was very much an afterthought. I definitely already had it in my head that I’d already played my last game. After a certain point, it wasn’t even a matter of, ‘Will I ever be playing again?’ It was, ‘Will I ever be back healthy again?’ ’’

While majoring in government and minoring in psychology, Blackwell considered careers in fields ranging from finance to real estate to the FBI.

But shaking his hockey roots proved difficult. He often tells a story of a political-science professor at Harvard asking him after one particular lecture whether he considered himself left wing or right wing — a question to which he responded, ‘‘I’ve always been a natural center.’’

‘‘You don’t get to this level without hockey consuming your life, so it was always on my mind, and I thought somebody was asking about it,’’ he said, laughing at the memory. ‘‘My family wasn’t too proud of me when I told [them] that story.’’

Eventually, in the winter of 2015, Blackwell felt himself getting over a hump in his concussion recovery and began reconsidering whether hockey might be possible.

After building back his conditioning and taking contact in practice without any issues, he made an unlikely return to Harvard’s lineup in late February, finishing with six points in 11 games. Granted an extra year of NCAA eligibility for 2015-16, he notched another 19 points in 28 games, disappointing himself in terms of his production but reassuring himself in terms of staying healthy for a whole season.

‘‘I was grateful for that last year to get my feet wet, to get back into it,’’ he said. ‘‘I knew it was just the way it was. I wasn’t going to be a top prospect, [not] the way maybe I was a couple of years before. But I believed in myself, and I just needed a chance. So I just tried to look at the game from a different perspective.’’

Blackwell finally broke into the NHL with the Predators in 2019 and 2020.

Blackwell finally broke into the NHL with the Predators in 2019 and 2020.

AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

That new perspective has lifted him from stop to stop in the pro game during the past six years.

He taught himself how to play a grinding fourth-line style in 2016-17 with the Sharks’ affiliate in the American Hockey League. That led to a bigger opportunity in 2017-18 with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate, where he erupted for 45 points in 61 games.

That led to his first two-way NHL contract with the Predators, where he remained a prolific AHL playmaker and evolved into an NHL depth option, making 33 appearances across two seasons. That led to a contract with the Rangers, with whom he established himself as a full-time NHL forward in the COVID-shortened 2021 season, tallying 22 points in 47 games.

That led to his selection by the Kraken in the expansion draft and, later, his inclusion in the headline-generating trade of Mark Giordano to the Maple Leafs. And a second consecutive solid NHL campaign — 20 points in 58 games in 2021-22 — led him to Chicago.

‘‘Versatility gave me my opportunity,’’ Blackwell said. ‘‘[I can be] whatever the staff needs, whether it’s left wing, right wing or center. . . . I’ve played a checking role; I’ve played a defensive role; I’ve played a more offensive role; I’ve had some power-play and penalty-kill time. Over the years, I’ve been [not only] a Swiss Army knife but a chameleon, as well, blending into different players and trying to read off them. It’s just the way I play the game.’’

That versatility will be valuable with the Hawks as new coach Luke Richardson tries to piece together a competitive forward lineup. Blackwell logically slots in as the third-line center in the initial depth chart, but he probably will spend time in all sorts of roles before April rolls around.

His defensive and forechecking metrics have been impressive. Per 60 even-strength minutes on the Kraken last season, he allowed only 23.5 scoring chances (per Natural Stat Trick), best among team forwards, and averaged 5.7 forecheck pressures and 3.9 forechecking puck retrievals (per All Three Zones), both well above the league average.

He has won a solid 50% of 326 career faceoffs, too. And despite his relatively small 5-9, 190-pound frame, he dished out 91 hits last season.

‘‘I don’t really compete against other people,’’ he said. ‘‘I compete against myself to get better every day.’’

This offseason has involved training to improve his skills when in possession, focusing on gathering pucks smoothly off the boards, protecting the puck once on his stick and making cutbacks toward the middle to create time and space.

But it also has included the launch of his own apparel brand, ‘‘CB43,’’ which demonstrates better just how far his career has come since his days researching how to join the FBI.

‘‘I wouldn’t say I necessarily took [hockey] for granted when I was younger, but until you have something taken away from you, sometimes you don’t realize the privilege we have,’’ Blackwell said. ‘‘It reminds you how much you do truly love it.’’

Offseason update

The Hawks signed 23-year-old forward Cole Guttman, who captained the University of Denver to the 2022 NCAA championship, to a two-year contract Thursday. Originally a Lightning draft pick, Guttman had 45 points in 41 games last season for Denver and likely will play at Rockford of the AHL this season.

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