MINNEAPOLIS — The first thing you notice is the smile.
Before you see the rink vision, or the on-ice aggression or the way he clicks with linemates, you see the smile. When the puck goes in the net, or when he talks with the media after a win, you see the smile. Blake McLaughlin has one of those infectious, toothy, ear-to-ear grins that shows he’s generally having the time of his life playing forward for the Minnesota Gophers.
“I don’t know if he’s ever had a bad day,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko of the junior from Grand Rapids, Minn., who is the fourth member of his blended family to play Division I hockey — three of them for the Gophers. “He does have a rink rat flair to his game. When he’s on, he’s a great pest for the other team all night long, killing penalties, on the forecheck, stealing pucks and blocking shots. He’s really a smart hockey player.”
But that smile is hard-earned, coming after more than a decade of learning from some hockey mentors in his unique blended family. And they came together as a result of a few very bad days, more than a decade ago.
Funerals, and a new family
In the summer of 2010, Elk River’s Jon McLaughlin died of a sudden heart attack at age 43. He left behind wife Tammi and three children, the youngest a 10-year-old boy named Blake. A few months later, former Gophers forward Grant Bischoff and his four children were nearby when his wife and their mother, Jackie, lost a valiant battle with cancer. She was 40.
It was roughly a year later when Bischoff, a real estate appraiser in Grand Rapids, got called to inspect the McLaughlin’s family cabin, located about an hour northwest of town. Grant met Tammi there. They talked about their families, about their losses, and about their many hockey-playing children.
They got to know each other a bit and met a few more times. The Bischoff kids came to visit the McLaughlin family home in Elk River. Six months later, in true "Brady Bunch" fashion, Grant and Tammi decided to get married and unite their two families under one roof. The McLaughlin clan moved from Elk River to Grand Rapids, where they settled in a house big enough for every kid to have their own room.
Blake was already an established soccer and hockey player in Elk River. His father had been very involved in the youth hockey scene there. He was friends and teammates with a boy named Jack Perbix, who would become a Gophers teammate a decade later. One might think that facing the pain of losing a parent, then moving three hours away to a new town with new step-siblings would be hard.
But when those days are mentioned, one can hear Blake’s broad smile, even through the phone.
“(My father) passed when I was 10, but my mom met a great guy and a great family in the Bischoffs, and that kind of sparked my hockey career even more,” Blake said. “It was actually easier on me because I was so young than maybe it was on my brother or sister being 18 and 16.”
Grant Bischoff had played four years under Doug Woog in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, winning a pair of WCHA titles and making two trips to the Frozen Four. Within a few years of the Bischoff/McLaughlin merger, his son Jake Bischoff followed his father’s U of M path and was a member of the Gophers’ most recent Frozen Four team, as a freshman in 2014.
Around the same time, Grant was coaching Blake’s youth hockey teams in Grand Rapids, where trips to the state tournament became the norm. Step-brothers Jake and Blake had so much on-ice success that on a Saturday night in March 2017, Grant faced a scheduling conflict. Jake was playing his final home game as a Gopher at 3M Arena at Mariucci, while 10 miles away or so, Blake and Grand Rapids were meeting Moorhead at Xcel Energy Center with the state Class AA title on the line.
“I came to the Gophers game for the parents part on-ice. As soon as that ended, I walked out the Zamboni doors,” Grant recalled. “Ben Hankinson picked me up, dropped me off at the front door of the Xcel and I walked in just as the National Anthem was ending, and I got to watch Blake win a state championship. That was quite a day for me.”
That night, the Thunderhawks’ high-scoring line of McLaughlin, Gavin Hain (now at North Dakota) and Micah Miller (now at St. Cloud State) combined for all six goals and four assists in a 6-3 win over the Spuds, giving Grand Rapids its first state championship since the “Halloween Machine” dynasty won three titles in six years between 1975 and 1980.
Destined for Dinkytown
Grant and Tammi also got used to making the trip to Mankato to watch Blake’s sister Jordan play four years of college hockey at Minnesota State, graduating in 2019. When college recruiters came calling for Blake, he scheduled several on-campus visits. But his first one was to the U of M, and he cancelled all of the others soon after.
“I’d been a Gophers fan and had always wanted to go there,” Blake said. “When they came calling, it was perfect because I already had Jake there so he could show me the ropes, and with Grant playing there, I just thought it was the right fit.”
As if to continue the family connections, as a junior, Blake lives in the off-campus dwelling known as the “Hockey House” and even has the same room occupied by his step-brother six years ago.
- Brannon McManus is the Gophers' 4-wheeled wonder
- In attack mode with and without the puck, Jackson LaCombe's game and confidence are growing for Gophers
- For Gophers captain Sammy Walker, a tale of survival against long odds began at birth
“There’s an old storage room that we were cleaning out this summer, and I found this Big Ten award covered in dust that said ‘Jake Bischoff’ on it,” Blake said, with a laugh. “Of course, if anyone would leave a Big Ten award behind, it would be Jake.”
Drafted by the Anaheim Ducks in the third round in 2018, McLaughlin has been to their development camp twice and like most kids has dreams of life in the NHL. With Jake playing a handful of games for the Vegas Golden Knights last season, those dreams have a new reality.
Slumping, then smashing
Then the 2020-21 Gophers season started after the pandemic delay, and for some reason, McLaughlin could not illuminate the red light behind the opposing goalie. He had no goals in the Gophers’ 8-0-0 start, and went into the Christmas break in an offensive funk.
“All the good ones go through a tunnel sometimes. It’s a little dark, but they all come through it. We coaches a lot of times have to wait it out,” said Motzko, who sat down with McLaughlin and showed him video of more successful times as a freshman and sophomore, pointing out little things he had stopped doing and needed to resume. “After being around him for three years, when he’s moving his feet and has his motor churning, that’s where all of his plays come from. When he’s digging deep, is relentless on the forecheck and being a pest, good things happen for him.”
Back in full pest mode, McLaughlin scored nine goals in the Gophers’ next dozen games, and had the prettiest goal of the season in a win at Notre Dame, only to have replays find a teammate that was a half-inch offside nearly a minute earlier, which took the “from his knees, top shelf shot” off the board.
His on-ice chemistry with Sammy Walker has been apparent from their first time on the ice together in maroon and gold, which is a big departure from their youth and high school days, when they were rivals — Walker at Edina and McLaughlin for Grand Rapids.
“We hated each other growing up. Especially in bantams and early high school, we didn’t like each other at all. We developed a mutual respect and then we got to college and became good friends,” Walker said. “We just know where each other is going to be on the ice. I’ve got my speed and he’s a great passer, so he can put it into areas where I can get it and we can bury on our opportunities.”
Leave hockey at the rink
Perhaps the most important lesson McLaughlin said he has learned from his step-father and sister, step-brother with all of their success at the rink is to leave hockey on the ice, and enjoy a full life. They are avid in the outdoors, and when the Bischoff/McLaughlin clan is all together, the talk at the table is all about the card games that sometimes stretch well beyond midnight.
They almost never talk hockey at home. That is something Blake learned from watching the family’s older siblings.
“They’d put their two or three hours in at the rink and then they’d escape and go fishing or hunting, just having fun and being normal kids,” he said. “I kind of took that to heart and never really pressured myself too much in hockey. I put in the work but once practice and workouts were over, I’d go be a kid. Don’t make it a job until it has to be a job."
For Tammi and Grant, the full time job these days is to be hockey parents. Tammi has been to every one of Blake’s home games and several road games as well. Grant has been to four games in Minneapolis — two each versus Notre Dame and Wisconsin — and he might not be coming back. The Gophers are 0-4-0 with Grant in attendance this season.
“I’m not letting him come anymore,” Blake said. “I’m a superstitious guy, so I told him he can come down and we can go to dinner Saturday night, but he’s not setting foot in Mariucci anymore.”
True to Blake McLaughlin’s nature, even banishing his step-father from attending future Gophers games was done with a smile.