For many sports fans, there’s a ‘you’re with me or against me’ type attitude. So, when Rob Blake resigned the captaincy of the Kings in September 2000 it pretty much sealed his fate with many of the team’s loyal supporters. When he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche the following spring, he became public enemy number one to most of the crowd at Staples Center.
For some, the booing of a player comes from a place or respect. For others, it comes from a place of near hatred.
Then there’s Rob Blake. It’s so hard to describe. On some level fans want to like him for what he did for the organization. On the other hand, some want to hate him for what they perceive he did to the organization.
Blake was combative nearly every time he returned in an Avs uniform – constantly stirring things up with the fans surrounding the visiting team bench and tunnel area. He says he returned to LA in 2006 to try and fix things. And after completing his second tour of duty with the Kings, it seems he’s moved on. Nowadays, when he visits with the Sharks, he keeps his head down and appears more focused on the game, ignoring anybody in the crowd still hanging on to the past.
Perhaps he has the closure he needed. The question is, do Kings fans have the closure they need?
Looking back, he resigned the captaincy in LA after receiving what he thought to be a ‘take it or leave it’ contract offer. At the time, he said “When (an offer) is put that way, if you don’t agree, you’re gone. I stepped down as captain because the team needs to keep moving forward.”
Then, a few days later, after asking for the captaincy back, he commented “This is a business. But I think I took it way too personal.”
Did Kings fans, perhaps, take things too personal as well?
Soon after Dean Lombardi signed him in the summer of ’06 I asked the Kings GM if bringing a guy like Blake back was in conflict with his constant preaching of only wanting ‘high character’ guys. Lombardi insisted people had it all wrong and the Players’ Association was behind most of the drama back then.
Perhaps. Or was it poor leadership? Contract, free agency, whatever. Leaders lead. And you would think most guys wouldn’t want to follow somebody who leads by taking his ball and going home.
Yet, where does the truth end and fiction begin in this story? Is any of it still important after the franchise and the player have both moved on?
This much is certain, he’s an important part of the Kings story and certainly one of the best defensemen in franchise history.
He’ll return once again tonight, now the captain of the San Jose Sharks. As a preview to the game, I chatted with Blake about his time in LA and we reflected a bit as things begin to wind down on what will surely be a Hall of Fame career.
When you were drafted by the Kings back in ’88 was that something you were expecting or had you been talking more with some other teams?
It was more unexpected than expected. Back then they didn’t really do all the interviews and things they do now. So when I went to the draft I really didn’t have a clue where I would end up. LA wasn’t a team that I spoke with beforehand or anything, so I didn’t know they were going to pick me.
You played two more years of college hockey before finally signing with the Kings. What were some of your first thoughts when you finally showed up to play with the Kings?
I came right at the end of college. We finished our season at Bowling Green and the next day I flew to LA. I remember my stall was right beside Larry Robinson, who was a childhood idol of mine growing up. So to walk into the dressing room, over at Culver City at the time, and have Larry Robinson as the guy next to me and looking across the room was Wayne Gretzky. I remember he actually came over and introduced himself, saying ‘Hi. I’m Wayne Gretzky’ or something like that. I was like, ‘I grew up in Canada. I know who you are.’ That’s how personable those guys were. But, when you’re not in the NHL and you’re working your way up, those guys are idols to you. Then, from one day to the next, all the sudden they became teammates. It was pretty amazing.
Players often talk about how much faster the NHL is than college or juniors. What were some of the first things you noticed about the game itself being different?
I think the size and strength of the guys is the first thing you noticed. I think the first game was against Winnipeg. I remember skating around in warm-ups and thinking ‘Look at the size of all these guys.’ In college you might have had one or two guys that were kinda big, but they might not have been as fast. It seemed like it was a whole different level. And it was men! I was coming from college and kids. Now all the sudden I was in a league of men. It’s almost better that you don’t know what to expect. You just kinda get thrown in and away you go.
One of the first real high points for the franchise was winning the Smythe Division in ’90-91, your first full year with the team. As you guys entered the playoffs that year, what kind of a sense did you get from your teammates – how close did that group think the team was at that point to making a serious run at the Cup?
I think we thought we were…obviously, finishing first in the Smythe – a division that was, at the time one of the toughest divisions for sure. We all expected we would go a lot further. We had some big games and we had guys like Gretzky and Kelly Hrudey. So our expectations were to go very deep into the playoffs. It’s not easy to do, but winning the Smythe put us in a position where we thought ‘We’re not far away from going to the finals.’
Some of your teammates from the early ’90s have said they felt it was the Oilers that were the big hurdle for you guys. That getting past that team was just too much. Did you see things that way or did you have a different perspective?
I don’t know if that was it so much with me because I had just come in at that time. But, we did have a lot of ex-Oilers. We had Marty, Huddy, Gretzky, Kurri. So, we had plenty of ex-Oilers and that created that issue. But, not so much with me because I wasn’t part of it. When you look back on it though you can certainly see the history between the two teams for sure.
On to the ’93 playoffs. The seven game series with Toronto had to be draining. Entering the finals, were you concerned that maybe the team wouldn’t have enough left to compete with Montreal – who was well rested at that point?
Yeah, they had been off. Anytime you make it that far though and you get into the finals you understand there’s a maximum of seven games left, so you have enough left in your tank. Interestingly, we had to go through four Canadian teams that year in the playoffs. Obviously, the majority of us being from the Toronto area, to be able to beat them in a seven game situation was a pretty exciting situation. We stayed right there in Toronto after it was over. I think we had a day or two off and then was off to Montreal and the hype began for the finals. It was a pretty amazing experience.
You’re probably tired of talking about it, yet we have to if we’re talking about this time period…Marty and the stick situation – everybody has an opinion about it and over time some opinions have changed – do you think that was the turning point in the series?
I think it’s the most publicized turning point of that series. I don’t know if it was the real turning point. I mean if you look, we were still up by a goal when that happened. We should have been able to put the game away. We should have been able to kill that off. They scored in overtime. They won three games in a row in overtime. I think Desjardins, LeClair and LeClair. So…it wasn’t just that we lost that game. The next two games were very close too. The series ended up 4-1 and in the fifth game they kinda took it to us. There were a lot of different key points, but I think the stick incident will always be the most talked about just because it gave them that power play late, late in the game.
As you look back at your career, is there one guy you wish you would have had a chance to play with?
I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate. I played with so many players throughout the LA era there. It’s been pretty amazing. I look more at the guys I played with, rather than I didn’t. Like I mentioned Gretzky, Robinson, Kurri – then you have guys like Granato, McSorley, Huddy, Hrudey. I can go on and on with the players. So for me, I’ve been blessed to be able to play with some great players over my career. It’s made it a lot of fun.
How about the hiring of Andy Murray. He told me that you were one of the reasons he wanted to come to LA. Was that something you lobbied for after having him coach you with Team Canada or were you surprised when he ended up here?
No it wasn’t a coincidence. It was definitely something we had talked about. I had him before in previous hockey Canada situations and I understood what type of coach he was and the structure he had, his understanding of the game. He had us so well prepared in those World Championships I thought that was something that could be brought to the Kings. Obviously his record over the years on different teams shows that he can do that. He brings teams that are kinda coming together and he finds a way to get them playing and producing every year. So, we were fortunate to be able to have him there for a few years to help build that.
What happened with all the injuries? People in the media, even fans, they like to point to him working his teams too hard in practice.
I don’t know, I don’t really buy into that. The conditioning has changed so much from he 90’s until now. I mean it’s tremendous. If you watch, now you see why kids are so developed coming into the league. I think the way Andy coaches the practices and how he drives it that’s anticipated. You need to have your body in that position and need to be able to take all that. So, I don’t read too much into it. But, I do think the transition of the training process has increased so much from the early 90s to now, it’s changed the game a lot.
The trade. By resigning the captaincy some would say you forced the teams hand. In hindsight is that how you see things?
Well that’s totally false. I don’t really answer these things because a lot of it is what people want to say and what people want to make up. Obviously there was a dispute in the number of years and things we wanted on the contract and then the next day I wake up and get a call and I’m traded. So, there’s not a lot a player can do. You respond to the trade. When you’re traded, you go to that team and you show up the next day and go to work. That’s the position I was in at the time.
Some fans in LA didn’t treat you so well after the trade. Being a fan favorite for so long in LA, was that a bitter pill to swallow at the time or was winning the Cup in Colorado your own sense of satisfaction?
Well I don’t know if there’s any satisfaction in it. I came into the league a Los Angeles King and that’s what I wanted to remain. Like I said we’re in a business. When you get that phone call that you’ve been traded your mindset has to change that very day. You have to become a product of the Colorado Avalanche now and you’ve got to leave those memories that you had with Los Angeles behind you. I’ve always said the fans are passionate fans there and they’re not going to cheer for somebody wearing a different uniform, that’s for sure. That’s the way it’s been handled from that day on and we can live with that.
How about returning to the Kings in ’06, GM Dean Lombardi took some heat for it at the time. Was it something you needed to do, wanted to do or was it just the right offer at the right time?
No. I didn’t even actually look anywhere else. It’s what I wanted to do at the time. I’ve enjoyed my time in LA and I enjoyed playing there, living there, raising a family there. It was an opportunity to be able to come back and try to work things out, try to get through it. It wasn’t the best two years for the franchise or for me personally. But, it was something that I needed to do and I’m glad I did it. Obviously we’ve gone different ways now. That being said, at that time, it’s exactly what I had hoped. I had hoped I could go back and try to play in LA again. That’s what I wanted to do.
Speculation at the trade deadline in ’08, your last year here, was that Lombardi wanted to trade you and you wouldn’t allow it. Any truth to that?
No. He tried to trade me and I allowed it to go through if that’s what he wanted to do. I guess at the last minute they couldn’t get the deal worked out. I wasn’t going to stand in the way of anything they wanted to accomplish.
That summer, without a contract, did you contemplate retirement…or did you know you wanted to play, but you knew you just wanted to play somewhere else?
It’s not that I wanted to play someplace else, that was the only option I had. I wanted to keep playing in the NHL. I had some injuries that took a while to heal and later on through the year you start feeling a little better. As I was overcoming those things I knew I wanted to continue my career in the NHL. It’s a dream to be able to do that, that’s how it’s unfolded even a couple more years past that.
How about getting the ‘C’ in San Jose. Was that captain by default? Does it bother you when people say Joe Thornton is the real leader of the team?
Not at all. We have more of a leadership group. It’s definitely not one guy wearing a letter that’s going to be able to lead this team. We needed a group. We didn’t look at it so much as Patty losing the captaincy, he’s a big part of this team and anything going forward. When we go into meetings and whatnot we have four or five guys go in as a group, so its obviously not just one guy in there. That’s the way this team has been set up. You have a lot of guys capable of handling things at different times, so we kinda do it as a group.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to the fans of the LA Kings to wrap things up here?
Nope. I think that’s good.
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After thinking about it for a long time, maybe he’s right. So much has been said already, there really isn’t much left to say. Perhaps it’s time to move on.
When it comes to Rob Blake it’s easy to be conflicted.
7 MUST-READ ARTICLES:
High / Low with Rob Blake – also includes word association on a bunch of his teammates
20 Questions with #20 – Interview with Luc Robitaille
Interview with Gary Shuchuk – Kings playoff hero in 1993
Podcast with Kerry Fraser – we cover all the big Kings stories he was involved in, fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff