by Jashvina Shah
When Joe Biondi played for Minnesota-Duluth in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the only way to record was through VHS tapes. Today’s generation of players–including Joe’s son, Blake–have probably never seen those big, blocky tapes or the big, bulky VCRs that play them. But several years ago Joe transferred some of his college games to DVDs, preserving some of his playing days.
A few months back, Blake popped in one of those DVDs and watched his dad play against Colorado College. Like a time capsule, it showed the college game for what it used to be, vastly different from what it is now.
“I looked back and said wow, just the speed,” Joe says. “I don’t want to say bigger, faster, stronger, but you can see that the speed of the game is so different. It’s, kind of like the NHL. You look at the game now and it’s so much faster than when you look 20 years ago. I think that’s the key.”
Maybe Blake was always destined to end up at Minnesota-Duluth. Because while his first memory of playing hockey came as a child on his backyard rink, his first memory of the game came from sitting in the old deck at Duluth’s DECC, a no-frills arena with just stands, the ice, a scoreboard and low ceiling–nothing more than fans and players, the spectators stacked on top of the ice. Back then he was too young to understand the sport, but he remembers seeing the mascot Champ.
The Biondi family held season tickets, and as Blake grew older and attended more games, he learned more and more. Eventually he even joined the team for a day where he shared their pregame meal, hung out in the locker room and took the ice for the national anthem and starting lineups.
“I always kind of felt like I was always going to play for UMD, but I wanted to make sure that I looked at every school that was interested in me and I wanted to make sure that I had all the options I could possibly have,” Blake says.
Joe even took Blake to the Frozen Four in 2011 and 2017. In 2011 he saw the Bulldogs win their first national championship, surrounded by his dad’s former teammates. In 2017 he watched UMD fall just a goal short of replicating that dream. Once he returned home to Minnesota, the recruiting process began.
“I said it’s like that new shiny car. Every time you went on a recruiting visit, everybody’s car is all polished up and ready to go,” Joe says. “Well you don’t really get to see the inside. You maybe get a walk through the locker room. You don’t get time really to hang out with a lot of the team, who wouldn’t be your teammate anyway. But to kind of see the culture, you try to do it in a four-hour visit per se and go from there.”
Back when Joe committed to UMD, the recruiting process was straight-line simplistic. You played four years of high school, skated in the state tournament and visited schools as a senior. Joe narrowed down his final choices to North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth. North Dakota was closer to his family and his hometown of Warroad, Minn., but Joe had relatives on the Iron Range. So at 17 years old, he chose the Bulldogs. Roughly two decades later, Blake picked the same team. But he made his decision at 15.
“It was obviously much different than from when my dad was recruited but, when you’re committing to a school you can’t really commit to the school, you commit to the hockey program,” Blake says. “ UMD has a great schooling program, but I have no clue what I want to do when I grow up because I’m 15. I think that’s just fine. I committed to the hockey program and how comfortable it was. I like UMD’s campus so that was a bonus, but I was committing to the hockey program.”
Despite the Bulldog connections, Blake’s parents emphasized talking to other schools instead of gravitating only to UMD. Blake did that, allowing the excitement of the recruitment process to steer him to different institutions. He narrowed his choices down to Minnesota, Notre Dame and Minnesota-Duluth, but the Hermantown, Minn., native chose to stay closest to home.
“I looked at the comfort level between the final three schools and UMD was by far the most comfortable,” Blake says. “So comfortable playing style, I mean we have similar playing styles and they have get out of the zone and go play offense, high-intensity playing style, I have that similar style and I wanted my family to watch me and staying close to home and that was huge for me.”
Younger recruiting is a part of college hockey now, with some schools committing players from ’03 and ’04 birth years. It’s a catch-22 for players–commit early and risk changing your mind later, or hold off and risk losing a spot. But it works both ways, as coaches can offer spots early and retract them later. Nothing is binding without a National Letter of Intent, and those players are too young to sign NLIs.
“What kind of scares me a little bit with college hockey is again it’s back to a verbal commitment, and you don’t hold the keys per se,” Joe says. “It becomes, what’s going to be available, who’s going to be available and what happens when some of these kids don’t turn pro early like some coaches are maybe predicting. All of a sudden you have a bunch of kids and then some kids are going to get pushed to juniors for another year or whatever it ends up being.
“That’s why I don’t believe in the 15-year-old process at this point, just because it’s so far down the road that there’s so much at stake.”
For Blake, it is still several years down the road, as he’s slated to join the Bulldogs for the 2021-22 season as a 19-year-old. But right now he’s a 15-year-old dressing for Hermantown High, showcasing his good hands, faceoff skills and his hockey IQ.
A high hockey IQ may be Blake’s marquee attribute, but all of his skills have benefitted from one important improvement–speed.
“He’s become more of a complete player and more lethal as far as offensively that way, because he tends to read and react really well naturally, and now his skills and his size and body have kind of caught up to that,” Patrick Andrews, his high school coach, says.
While Blake’s speed skyrocketed last season, not all went well for the Minnesota native, who starred on a struggling team. But he learned to score on his own, which helped him join the Minnesota Blades and win the tournament in Pittsburgh. That led to an appearance at the World Selects Invite in Philadelphia, which led to an appearance in the Elite League before this year’s high school season started.
“I think it was a good lesson for him on basically what he’s going to have to expect going forward especially in high school in the next few years where he’s going to be kind of the marquee guy,” Andrews says. “He’s going to have to get used to that and I think that takes some getting used to.”
Blake did all right, potting 42 goals and 81 points in 42 games while captaining that Hermantown Bantam AA team. He then netted six points in six games at the World Selects Invite. Finally in the Elite League, he added 13 points in 20 games.
“There were a lot of ups and downs and obviously they’re a lot older than me, two or three years older than me, but it was fun,” Blake says of his Elite League experience. “For the first couple weeks I was putting up good numbers, I was scoring goals and I was one of the better guys on my team. It got tougher in the middle of the season because it gets to be a grind. Our team ended up doing well and we got third place, but it was fun. It was a good experience for me to see where I am against older guys and it prepared me for the high school season too, so it was a big bonus for me too, playing in that league.”
Blake is now 17 games into his high school season, recording 11 goals and 28 points in that span. He takes pride in playing as a 200-foot center, but Andrews says there is room for defensive improvement for Blake to develop into an elite, natural center.
“You can work one everything but I think good habits, that’s huge for getting to the next level,” Blake says. “Having good practice habits and probably still that speed is huge because hockey’s changed so much. It’s all about speed and always working on speed.”
Photo credit: Hickling Images