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Rampage grad Blandina staying involved at NCAA D-I level with Robert Morris

 

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Brandon Blandina made a name for himself with the Colorado Rampage during his youth days.

That success continued at NCAA Division I Robert Morris University, doing the dirty work that’s crucial to a hockey team’s success.

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“Brandon played with a lot of energy,” said RMU head coach Derek Schooley. “He was a hard-nosed defensive forward and a great penalty killer, and he grew into an effective faceoff guy.”

Blandina played for Pittsburgh-based Robert Morris from 2008-12. His 11 goals and 27 assists don’t raise eyebrows, but he was part of a Colonials penalty-killing unit that was ranked No. 1 in the nation among Division I teams at one point.

After two seasons of professional hockey (2012-14) for the Elmira Jackals and Reading Royals of the ECHL, Blandina decided to retire as a player.

The Denver native returned to Pittsburgh and opened his own business, Elite Strides Hockey. Using a synthetic ice treadmill, he teaches young hockey players proper skating techniques.

This past summer, he moved from a gym into a space at the RMU Island Sports Center, Robert Morris’ home rink. It was there that he joined forces again with Schooley.

“It hit me one day. Brandon is here already. Maybe I can have him help our team,” Schooley said.

Two weeks into the season, Blandina became a volunteer assistant coach for the Colonials. He has two jobs with the young team, working with players on faceoffs and penalty killing.

That’s not a surprise, and neither is Robert Morris’ improvement in those areas.

“We’ve gone from 40 percent to 50 percent in faceoff wins and from the low 70 percent to low 80 percent in penalty killing,” Schooley said.

“Brandon is adding a different voice to our coaching staff. Because he was a college player not long ago, he can relate to our players. If Brandon wants to get into coaching, this experience will be great for his resume. I think he’d be a good coach because he has such a passion for the game.”

This is the first season that Blandina, 27, has been a coach. He’s also coaching a 14U girls team in the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite program.

“I’ve learned so much working with the Robert Morris coaches,” he said. “It’s been very interesting telling college and my U14 players what to do after being told what to do by coaches for so many years.

“I’m glad I’ve been able to help the Robert Morris team. None of their coaches was a forward when he played, so I’m filling a need for them.”

Robert Morris was 8-4-2 overall and 6-3-1 in the Atlantic Hockey Conference in early December.

Schooley said it hasn’t been decided if Blandina will return as a volunteer assistant coach next season.

“We’ll evaluate the situation after the season,” he said. “It will depend on the time commitment that’s needed.”

While Blandina is not behind the bench for Robert Morris games, he attends practice four times a week.

Blandina said the two seasons (2004-06) he played for Andrew Sherman on the Rampage Midget AAA team were beneficial to his development as a hockey player.

“I was one of the young guys on the team when I got there,” he said. “The older guys helped me grow as a player by pushing me to evaluate my game.”

Blandina said his decision to stop playing professional hockey after 117 games in the ECHL (he had 15 goals and 30 assists) was a matter of priorities.

He was engaged at the time and he and his then-fiancé bought a home. Plus, he knew he could stay involved in hockey through his business.

“While I don’t regret my decision to retire, I miss playing every day,” he said. “Anyone who says he doesn’t miss playing is lying.”

Photo: Brandon Blandina (left) and Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley observe Colonials players during a recent practice at the RMU Island Sports Center in suburban Pittsburgh. Photo/RMU Athletics

— Steve Stein