LA Kings Captain Dustin Brown. (Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)

Fortunate Is the Word

Rob Blake joined Rogie Vachon, Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne, Luc Robitaille, and Wayne Gretzky amongst the rafters at Staples Center on Saturday night. The guys hang out up there most of the time, watching today’s players trying to duplicate their feats of hockey greatness. Well, maybe not the guys themselves, but giant banners bearing their names and numbers.

Blake also spends a good deal of time in the GM’s office, where he now works for the team as Assistant General Manager, a role he took on in the 2013-14 season. It’s a big change for a guy who spent more than two decades on the ice. Blake was drafted by the Kings in 1988 and retired after trips through the Colorado and San Jose organizations in 2010, when he was 40.

Blake took a somewhat unusual (for the time) path from Simcoe Ontario to the NHL. He jumped the border, drove down I 75, and played for Bowling Green State University. In those days, it was still true that the most likely way to the NHL was going through Junior hockey. Perhaps the numbers would say that this is the case in 2015, but only by a slight margin if so. Back then, though, “college boys” weren’t desired so much in the rough-tough world of the NHL.

He was at school with fellow King Nelson Emerson, who joined many other of their teammates from Kings days of old on Saturday night to honor Blake by retiring his number. Names on the ice wearing their old Kings numbers included Dan Bylsma, Mattias Norstrom, Kelly Hrudey, Stephane Fiset, Rogie Vachon, and a number of others. Missing? Dave Taylor, who was in the scouts’ section of the press box, and Marcel Dionne. Gretzky wasn’t there either, but his last appearance in my recollection was at the outdoor game in LA last January, and that was more as a representative of the league than of the team.

Blake was the captain of the Kings for six of the seasons he played in LA, which were 14 of his 20 seasons in the league. No other LA defenseman has ever won the Norris Trophy. Blake captured it in 1997-98. With the team, he appeared in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, losing to Montreal in five games. He then went on to win the Cup with the Avalanche in 2001, the season he was traded to the Colorado team. He left to take the job in an era when that team was the Kings’ chief rival, and which took the Kings out of the playoffs twice in a row.

He also won many other important tournaments, including the Olympics—gold with Canada in 2002—and two World Championships, taking gold in both 1994 and 1997.

His NHL career stretched past 1200 games, and included 777 points and almost 1700 minutes in penalties in the regular season. Adding playoffs in, he notched over 1400 games and more than 250 goals.

Aside from the Stanley Cup with Colorado, he won one in the front office with the Kings in 2014, and his name is thus inscribed twice on that most hallowed trophy.

And finally, Blake is in the Hall of fame, having been installed there in 2014.

Other notable players who wore #4? Bobby Orr, of course, is the most notable. There was also Tom Bladon, Bob Baun, Ron Francis, Mark Howe (also a Hall of Famer, and in attendance on Saturday night up in the press box), Red Kelly, Newsy Lalonde, Guy Lapointe, Kevin, Lowe, and others.

Blake’s style of play draws comparisons with few, since Blake was such a mobile, dominating defenseman. Think about a continuum which stretches from Larry Robinson through to the present, and you might put Blake in the middle of that span, with perhaps Shea Weber as the most recent iteration of the breed.

Blake could skate the puck. He’s tall, though not what you might call “big.” More gangly, especially in the early years, he used his long reach to knock the puck off the oppositions’ sticks. When that didn’t work, he would lure the opposing forward into his contact zone and then—wham!—smack him into the boards with a hip check.

But Blake was never a predator like certain others (Scott Stevens) who played in his era. He wasn’t altogether a clean player, as those penalty minutes would attest, but neither was he vicious. More like a guy who would make you pay if you decided to cruise down his side of the ice.

As a leader, Blake was, according to Bob Miller during the retirement ceremony, always available to the media. He was, by Dustin Brown’s account during the sweater retirement ceremony, the head man in an era when the Kings weren’t very good. He thus had to explain his team’s deficiencies lots of times, a job that must not have been all that desirable.

He left, as was said, to go to the rival Avalanche. That’s why Blake was booed so heartily for so long when he would come back to LA. But he made it right, or seemed to, when he took the deal the Kings offered him to come back to town in 2006. That was the era Brown was referencing. He played in LA again from 2006-08, vowing at the time that he’d always be a King and would retire there.

Then he up and moved again, signing a two-year deal with the Sharks, where he finished out his playing days. At the time, I thought this was kind of a cheap move, a contradiction to what he’d said when he inked what seemed like it was his last NHL deal with the Kings. Again, he was booed by fans.

That somehow disappeared when he signed on with the team again the year before last. It’s never really been clear to me why, because the hurt was deep amongst a significant number of LA fans. But my encounters with Blake, especially when I interviewed him for my Gretzky book, show him to be a gracious, soft-spoken man, intelligent and focused.

Rob Blake listens, he doesn’t just talk. And that is perhaps what will make him successful as a team executive, whether that be in LA down the road as the next GM or somewhere else.

In any case, he’ll always have the honor of looking up to the corner where names that will remain famous throughout hockey history be accompanied by his Blake #4.

His key word to describe his career? Between periods one and two he spoke to the press, and he said, “fortunate.” He said that he thought the ceremony to honor him was great, and that he was “a little” surprised at how current LA captain Dustin Brown became emotional during his presentation. But “it’s great because it was what we were trying to do,” by which he was referring to Brown’s statement that the team was trying to build character and identity in the period when he and Blake played together, which was when Brown was new in the league, in 2005-06.

“I told the guys in a little thing we had last night that we were leaving an impression on the younger guys, and now they’re leaving an impression again. I was fortunate to see Luc [Robitaille’s] banner going up and feeling that, and now these guys are getting the same sort of thing.” Luc’s moment came in 2007, Blake’s last year with the Kings as a player..

“To be able to walk up and see the current Kings, and see the old Kings, the word ‘honor’ is what occurs to me,” Blake said early on in his press interview. “You’re fortunate who you play with, you’re fortunate to be able to play long, and you’re fortunate to be able to win.”

“Fortunate” could serve as a useful summary of the ceremony, which concluded with the banner with his number going up, and then an 8pm faceoff against Anaheim.