One of the wackiest, wildest NHL games that I have ever seen was a January 6th, 1996 showdown between the Buffalo Sabres and the Montreal Canadiens at the venerable, old Montreal Forum. It was one of those games where neither team could get a decisive advantage in the game, and neither team played sound defensively. Three different goaltenders would play in the game, two different skaters – one for each team – would record hat tricks, while eight different players would have at least a two point night. And of those three goaltenders, Buffalo Sabres goaltender John Blue would get the “W” and finish the game with the best save percentage of the three goalies; a paltry .810 save percentage. Better than his 18-year old counterpart, Sabres’ backup for that evening Martin Biron, and his .667 – Biron only stopped 4-shots of the 6 total that he faced. Color commentator and Sabre alum Jim Lorentz would pose the idea, “maybe they should take this game out to the St. Lawrence River and play some pond hockey!”, referring to the lack of defense throughout the game.
When I ask John about this particular game, and how he may have helped a youngster like Biron work his way through a rough night like that one, he tells me, “that was a crazy game and I remember it vividly! Marty was a kid just out of juniors, and a great guy. I hope that I was able to impart some knowledge to some of the younger players. I didn’t say much; I just tried to work my ass off. I knew my role, I knew that I wasn’t an All-Star, so I just tried to be the hardest worker on the ice every day. I think if anything, they saw that I cared and never quit”.
John Blue would not quit in that game against the Canadiens, and despite allowing 2-goals on 5-shots in the first period, and being pulled in favor of Biron, only to be put back in when the teenage Biron would fare no better, John would end up backstopping Buffalo to a 7-6 win. The game would be tied 3-3 after the first period alone. Sabres’ forward Jason Dawe and Canadiens’ center Pierre Turgeon would each have a 3-goal night. Though he allowed 4-goals on 21-shots, Blue battled for that victory against the Habs. In fact, John would always impress as a battler between the pipes throughout his career.
While hailing from Huntington Beach, California, John Blue would become familiarized with the game of hockey after moving further north. “When I was five, my dad was transferred to Seattle, Washington, and we were both introduced to hockey there. I started playing hockey in Seattle, and we lived there for about 2-years before moving back to California”. Growing up in 1970s California, it was pretty far removed from normal hockey realms. Even though the state of California had been blessed with two NHL franchises since 1967, the California Golden Seals would move to Cleveland, Ohio in 1976, while the Los Angeles Kings would not have a strong following until many years later. “Living in California, we didn’t get a lot of hockey out here”, Blue would recall. “But I remember watching the Canadiens winning in the 1970s. I would pretend to be Guy Lafleur, Bernie Parent (Philadelphia Flyers), or Ken Dryden”.
John’s passion for the game would see him venture away from a region with a modest hockey presence, to a true “hockey hotbed” by enrolling at the University of Minnesota, where he would play for three years during the mid-1980s. While with the Golden Gophers, John would suit up alongside numerous future NHL players, including teammates Corey Millen, Paul Broten, Dave Snuggerud, and future Stanley Cup winners Tom Chorske and Frank Pietrangelo. Blue’s statistics at the U of M were superlative during his three year career, with an overall record of 64-wins, 25-losses and 1-tie, to go along with 7-shutouts and a 3.20 goals against average. Through consecutive 20-plus win seasons during his collegiate career, John would be recognized with a Second Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association selection for the 1984-85 campaign, followed by a First Team selection, alongside future hockey legend Brett Hull, the following season in 1985-86.
Considering John’s great success at the University of Minnesota, I ask him if he ever felt that his performance in the game would have led him onto the NHL. Surprising to me was the fact that John personally felt he would not get much of a shot to garner NHL attention. “I was hoping I would get a shot, but the reality was that my unorthodox style was not a big attraction to NHL scouts. I had never had a goalie coach in my career up to that point. The first time I had actually worked with a coach was in college. It is really hard to unwind certain habits after all that time, but at the end of the day you just stop pucks – it doesn’t matter what it looks like”. Even with his own reservations about his style of play, John must have stopped enough pucks to be heralded enough that the Winnipeg Jets drafted him in the tenth round of the 1986 NHL draft as the 197th overall selection. And while his time as a member of the Jets organization would be very short lived (John would be traded to the Minnesota North Stars in March of 1988), he would find himself well on the way into the life of a professional hockey player.
The next five years would see John Blue living the life of a journeyman, as professional hockey would carry him through the ranks and throughout the stomping grounds of various professional hockey leagues in North America. Between 1987 through 1992, John would see stops in each of the top minor leagues, including stays with the Kalamazoo Wings, Phoenix Roadrunners, Albany Choppers and Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League (IHL), the Virginia Lancers and the Knoxville Cherokees of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), and the Maine Mariners and Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League (AHL). Though he would sign with them as a free agent late in the summer of 1991, it would not be until January of 1993 that Blue would finally reach the mountaintop of professional hockey by suiting up for the Boston Bruins, in what would be his first NHL appearance.
With the Bruins, John would be brought up from the AHL’s Providence Bruins as a replacement for longtime netminder, Rejean Lemelin, who had retired during the 1992-93 NHL season, and would serve as starting goaltender Andy Moog’s new backup relief. Moog, who had won three Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers and who had shared the Jennings Trophy during the 1989-90 season had never had any other permanent backup in Boston besides Lemelin since he came to the Bruins for the 1987-88 season. It would be a new experience for both netminders. “It was a really interesting time, because I had replaced a legend and a good friend of Andy’s in Reggie Lemelin. Andy didn’t say much, but he was a great teammate. I learned a lot watching him play”.
The tandem of Moog and Blue would only last for one NHL season, and a partial one at that. Perhaps the irony to John Blue’s NHL career is that during the lone season as Moog’s understudy, both Bruins goaltenders would falter in the first round of the 1992-93 Stanley Cup playoffs to the team that would end up being the final NHL team that John would suit up for in his career, the Buffalo Sabres. Despite the Bruins being favored to win the series, Boston would be grossly swept in four games by Buffalo, falling at the hands of superstars Pat LaFontaine, Alexander Mogilny, and the infamous “May Day”-goal scored by the Sabres’ Brad May. Andy Moog would allow 14-goals to Buffalo in only three games, including one in which he was pulled in favor of Blue, while John would fair a bit better by allowing 5-goals between one full game and the one partial game he played in the series.
After the first round flop in 1993, Andy Moog would be shipped to the Dallas Stars in exchange for a another veteran, Jon Casey. Once again, John Blue would serve as a backup, this time in behind Casey, for the 1993-94 season but it would not be a permanent arrangement. Despite playing in 18-games for Boston that season, John would be sent back down to Providence in January of 1994 to be replaced by veteran Vincent Riendeau, who would serve as Casey’s new backup goaltender. While Blue’s save percentage (0.885) and goals against average (2.99) would be decent numbers across the 18-games, his wins and losses record would be the only one of the three goaltenders that was a losing one, as Blue finished the season going 5-8-and-3. John’s days with the Boston Bruins would be coming to an end.
The lockout shortened 1994-95 season would John’s final go-round with the Bruins organization. It would also be a season that would see minimal opportunity for John to showcase his capabilities. The entire season would be spent with Providence in the AHL. Boston would decide to go with a younger, fresh out of college goalie in Blaine Lacher, who was 4-years John’s junior. Not seeing a single call up to the parent club Bruins, Blue would be one of seven goalies to play for Providence, and would only see action in 10-regular season games. And while John would go 6-3-o in those 10 games, it would be time to move on to a new club.
The 1995-96 Buffalo Sabres were a club that could not stay healthy in goal. And while future Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek would be coming off of two consecutive Vezina Trophy winning seasons, he would be limited to 59-games throughout 1995-96 because of injuries. Buffalo would end up utilizing a revolving door of goaltenders who were in and out of the lineup; five in total. With injuries sidelining Hasek and regular backup Andrei Trefilov, and only having youngsters like teenage Martin Biron to call upon from the wings, Buffalo would sign the veteran 29-year old John Blue on December 28th, 1995 to try and establish some relief for their goaltending woes.
In total, John Blue would play in 5-games for Buffalo’s “Blue and Gold”, posting a record 2-2-0, while seeing action through late-December and throughout January. John recalls his time with the Sabres quite fondly, especially getting to suit up alongside the legendary Dominik Hasek. “I have never seen a harder worker in my life! He hated to be scored on, and his passion was infectious”. Despite Hasek’s injuries, he would put up the staggering numbers in ’95-’96 that would come to define him with a 92.0% save-percentage and a strong 2.83 goals against average; numbers that were actually mediocre by Hasek-standards. “Playing with Dom was a special time. Or should I say, sitting on the bench watching Dom play!”, Blue recalls, laughing.
Though John would participate in only of handful of games as a Sabre, he would remain with the organization throughout the remainder of the season, including a stay with Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, even appearing in a playoff game for the Amerks. “I really enjoyed my short time in Buffalo. I thought Ted (Nolan, Buffalo’s head coach) was a stand-up guy. My first meeting with (John) Muckler (Sabres’ general manager at the time) was one I will never forget. He said to me, “I didn’t sign you to win any games, but I sure as hell didn’t sign you to lose any games either! You’re not Dominik Hasek, so don’t try to be!”.
Despite the brief period of time in Buffalo, John had a few special moments in addition to the 7-6 Montreal game. While Sabres’ original and legendary goaltender Roger Crozier would sadly pass away early in January 1996, John would be assigned Crozier’s former number-#1 when he arrived in Buffalo before Crozier’s passing. I ask John what wearing the same number as the original “Artful Dodger” meant to him. “Other than I am sure he (Crozier) was highly offended, it was a true honor”. On a lighter note, John adds, “I still can’t figure out why they didn’t give me my old Boston number-39”, he laughs; “I guess Dom didn’t want to give it up!”.
John also was in the lineup, serving as backup to Andrei Trefilov, for the final game that the Buffalo Sabres ever played in Memorial Auditorium. April 14th, 1996 would see the Sabres close out “The Aud” in wonderful fashion, with a 4-1 win over the Hartford Whalers. With the rest of his teammates, John would participate in the closing ceremonies of the building after the game’s conclusion. “It was amazing being there as the banners came down. Although closing ‘the Aud’ was hard, there were so many great memories and such a great place to play. Just a couple years before with Boston, we lost the famous Game-4 ‘May Day’ game there. I feel blessed to have been able to play in those great arenas. The Montreal Forum, ‘the Aud’, the old Boston Garden, Maple Leaf Gardens, Le Colisée de Québec”.
Blue would retire from professional hockey after the 1996-97 season, following 33-games with the Austin Ice Bats of the Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL). Thinking back on his professional career, I ask him who the most difficult shooters were that he faced. “The obvious one is Mario Lemieux. But I always hated playing against Detroit, especially Steve Yzerman”.
Many fond memories for sure, and while hockey is a wonderful sport, John would also find that there is more to life. Though no longer involved with hockey, these days John is finding success following a different calling as the pastor for Pacific Pointe Church in Costa Mesa, California. “I have pastored two other churches here in the last 10-years and just started this new one about a month ago. The ministry thing came about when I ended up in Boston. I had worked hard for 20-years to make it, then when I was there, skating onto the ice at the Boston Garden for the first time, there was this real interesting feeling. It was like, ‘this is amazing, but there has to be more to life; this can’t be it?’. That started this journey of discovery. When I realized that hockey would be over some day, that my life would be over some day, I realized that there had to be more. What I discovered was Jesus, and what I realized was that I was created with purpose; yes, to play hockey, but that there was so much more. So, my days are filled ministering to others and helping others in this journey called life!”.
John, I cannot help but feel that your ministering has carried over to me in this instance, and is helping me in some way; assisting me to write this article, and pursue things that I feel a calling towards; hockey and my ability to write. Thank you, John! I appreciate what you brought to hockey, brought to Buffalo, and are bringing to others to this day.