Winger glad to be back in business

DON BRENNAN -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 11:08 AM ET

Michael Blunden did enough in 2004-05 to get himself ranked 20th among all North American non-goalie prospects.

No wonder he's confident about a season for which he can actually prepare.

"I want 30 goals, 40 assists, 70 points ... and to be able to just play my game," says Blunden, an Erie Otters right winger who grew up in Gloucester and idolizes Carolina Hurricanes workhorse Erik Cole.

"I'm a power forward. I love to crash and bang, go to the net, dig in the corners and work hard."

And all of the above is much easier now that he can do it without the searing pain in his back that ultimately required surgery to correct.

Blunden, who has outgrown all the programs and now has his 210 lbs. spread over a hulking 6-foot-4 frame, was the OHL Otters' third leading scorer last season.

He had 22 goals, 19 assists and 75 penalty minutes in 61 games, but he did not have the lower body power he has now.

WORKING OUT

"Last year, I wasn't able to work on my legs until August," says Blunden, who has spent the past couple of months in the gym, on the golf course and skating twice a week with a group of local NHLers. "I feel a lot stronger. It's been a great summer this year."

Not so great for Blunden was the 2003-04 hockey season. In November, he began experiencing pain in his lower back that, by January, he could no longer stand. CAT scans and MRIs showed he had been living with a stress fracture near the nerves in his lower back for 15 years or so. He was told no further damage could be done, and to play if and when he felt he could.

"I had to take a couple of weeks off," Blunden recalls. "I could barely walk or lift my legs."

He wound up skating in 52 games for the Otters, scoring 22 goals and 17 assists -- and on April 22, 2004, Blunden was at University Hospital of Cleveland and under the knife of Dr. Bolhman, who left him with some internal rods as souvenirs.

"Everything's fine now," he says. "I feel great."

As is the case with many prospects, opinions vary on when Blunden will be picked in today's NHL draft. One scout thinks he'll go between the 15th and 25th picks of the first round; another says he'll be selected between rounds 2 and 4.

Fact is, he might have been a top-5 pick if not for the health problem.

"He's a big, strong, physical kid who has a lot of the things everybody wants," says one talent evaluator. "But he had that bad back, and it took him a long time to get over it."

Blunden says he doesn't really care when he gets drafted, as long as he does.

"There are some 10th rounders who played in the NHL and some first rounders who didn't," he says.

Only his dad, Dave, and 11-year old sister Jennifer will be with him at the Westin Hotel for the event. His mom, Elizabeth, and 14-year-old brother Sean will be in Belleville with Stephen, his 16-year old brother who was drafted by the OHL's Bulls and will be attending a mini-camp.

"I'm definitely looking forward to the day," says Blunden, who like other prospects wondered about its arrival as the NHL shutdown dragged on. "I knew it would get here sometime ... but now with the settlement, and the draft right away, everything is happening so quick. It's pretty exciting."

Especially now that the back problems are behind him.

don.brennan@ott.sunpub.com


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