November 13, 2014

HHOF 2014: Rob Blake

Rob Blake's journey to collegiate hockey star, NHL all star, Stanley Cup champion, Olympic champion and now Hockey Hall of Famer began on a frozen pond outside the rustic family farm house that he grew up in.

Born in Simcoe, Ontario, Rob Blake learned the game by playing on the farm pond outside of Toronto. He, along with his brother Russell, skated there for hours.

"I think we spent more time outside then we did in the house," Rob said of the winters. "I think if we had our way, we'd be out on the pond from sun up and to sun down."

Hockey became a way of life for the Blake family. From his earliest days of organized hockey Rob was clearly better than most. He was bigger and stronger than anyone - a trait he mostly he maintained right through to the NHL. And he loved playing the game.

Blake was still somewhat of a late bloomer, not a complete surprise for defensemen. It was not until he attended Bowling Green University that he really found his game - a game that would one day land him in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"I can't say for sure what it was, but everything just seemed to come together at Bowling Green," says Blake."It was a great choice for me."

The strapping blueliner struggled early due to homesickness but quickly grew confident in his place not only on the ice but on campus. He excelled defensively while really adding a nice offensive package while at school.

The LA Kings scouts must have been beaming from ear to ear as they watch Blake mature into one of the top prospects in the world. They had drafted him 70th overall in 1988, taking a bit of a flyer on him. By the spring of 1990 Blake had left school early and turned professional. He really impressed that spring, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Blake immediately showed that he had all the skills to play in the NHL. His passes were crisp, his shot was booming, and his bodychecks were punishing. But he really impressed in how mature his game was.

Now many rookies joining the LA Kings may have been star struck by Wayne Gretzky back in those days, but Blake may have been more in awe of his very first NHL defense partner - Larry Robinson. Robinson, one of the all time great NHL defenseman who was winding his career down by this point, had long been Blake's on-ice idol. In fact Blake had always worn #19 just like his favorite hero. Next thing he knew he was in the NHL playing right along side him!

The Kings knew Blake could become one of the best in the world, but early on Blake never really thought of himself as such.

Barry Melrose, the Kings coach at the time, explains:

"When I first got to L.A., I expected Rob Blake to be better than Rob Blake expected Rob Blake to be," said Melrose, who coached the Kings from 1992-95.

"I saw his immense talent. I saw his size. I saw his skating ability. I saw his shot. I saw his toughness. Robby took some nights off. I don't think he thought of himself as a great NHL defenseman, and I did. All my discussions with Rob when he was young, when I first got there, were about him accepting that."

"I told him, 'I look at guys who win the Norris Trophy and they're not as big as you, they're not as fast as you, they don't shoot like you, they don't skate like you,'" Melrose said. "I would say, 'Why is this guy winning the Norris Trophy? Why aren't you winning the Norris Trophy?'"

Robinson, of course, really helped Blake's game mature, too - first as a teammate and then as a coach. There is a striking similarity in the way the two big men excelled at the game - big physical defensemen who could defend and score equally well, yet were feared and respected for their punishing - but clean - physical style of play.

Said Robinson: "He wasn't at all out of place. Right off the bat, he was a nice, polite kid who could skate and had a cannon of a shot but who just needed some refinement. But you knew he was going to be a good one because he fit right in right away."

Three years after Blake's arrival the LA Kings made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history. The Kings lost the 1993 championship to Montreal, but make no mistake - the Kings surprise emergence had a lot to do with Blake's arrival as one of the best in the game.

That taste of Stanley Cup excitement motivated Blake to become even better.

"It's never fun to lose, no matter how hard you tried," reflects Blake. "From that point on, I was focused on getting back to the final and this time, I wanted to be the one hoisting the Cup."

Unfortunately for Blake and Kings fans, that never happened while Blake was in LA. Some injuries derailed his game at times, but by the end of the 1990s Blake was arguably as good as any defenseman in the game - he could defend, he could score and he could hit. Boy could he hit! Blake, who served as Kings' captain after Wayne Gretzky left, won the Norris trophy in 1998 as the best defenseman in the game.

The Kings stumbled through some poor seasons during the late 1990s and early 2000s and opted to make some changes.  In February of 2001 he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. The 6'4" 225lb defenseman would play a major role in helping the Avalanche with the Stanley Cup that spring.

Blake would enjoy five seasons with the Avalanche. He later returned to LA for two seasons and extended his career with 2 more seasons with San Jose. He retired in 2010 with 1270 NHL games, 240 goals, 537 assists and 777 points. He added another 26 goals, 47 assists and 73 points in 146 Stanley Cup playoff games.

Blake was also a regular star with Team Canada, competing in three Olympics (winning gold in 2002) and five World Championships (winning gold in 1994 and 1997), as well as the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

And now Rob Blake enters the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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