Rob Blake ends NHL career; former King praised as 'elite-level player' with 'a blue-collar heart'
Blake, who turned 40 in December, played 1,270 NHL games, including 805 with the Kings. While in L.A., he was a four-time all-star, a key member of the 1993 team that lost to Montreal in the Stanley Cup final and won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman in 1998.
He remains the Kings’ leader among defensemen in games played (805), goals (161), assists (333), points (494) and power-play goals (92). Among all Kings players, he ranks fourth in games played, seventh in assists, seventh in points, fourth in penalty minutes (1,231) and fourth in power-play goals.
"I have very fond memories of L.A.," said Blake, the Kings’ fourth-round pick and 70th overall in 1988. "I was fortunate they gave me an opportunity to play. My first partner was Larry Robinson. I played with Tony Granato, Wayne Gretzky, Marty McSorley and had an opportunity to learn so much."
He ended a distinguished career with 240 goals, 537 assists, 777 points and 1,679 penalty minutes -- and a Stanley Cup championship with Colorado in 2001. He also won an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2002 and a world championship in 1997.
"He’s an elite-level player, but he’s got a blue-collar heart," Doug Wilson, the Sharks’ general manager, said during a news conference attended by several current Sharks. Also in the audience were Granato, former Kings teammate Glen Murray and Kings development executive Nelson Emerson, Blake’s teammate at Bowling Green and with the Kings. Joe Sakic, Blake’s teammate in Colorado, offered a video tribute that praised Blake’s contributions to the Avalanche’s success.
Blake, the Sharks’ captain last season, said that as the season evolved he knew his career was winding up. Though he said he was in good shape and felt fine, “it just seemed like the right time” to retire. “I’ve enjoyed the 20 years, but it’s time to move on to a new step,” he said.
He said he hopes to be involved in hockey again but has no immediate plans beyond spending time with his wife, Brandy, whom he met while playing in L.A., and their two young children. “I envision being in the game many more years,” said Blake, who has long had a home in Manhattan Beach.
Despite the memorable hip checks he dished out -- he was one of the league’s best in his prime -- and his skills in quarterbacking the power play, he’s despised by many Kings fans because of the circumstances surrounding his two departures from the team, in 2001 and again in the summer of 2008. He was loudly booed each time he returned with the Sharks the last two seasons, but did he really deserve that treatment?
To recap: Blake was poised to become a free agent in the summer of 2001. Distracted by contract talks, he briefly relinquished the captaincy before the 2000-01 season began and after the Kings had given him a take-it-or-leave-it offer. He was seeking $9.6 million annually, which the team resisted paying, saying it would have been a quarter of the payroll; the Kings were offering slightly more than $7 million a year.
Then-General Manager Dave Taylor made a last-ditch attempt to sign him, but Blake remained determined to test free agency for the first time. Kings ownership then told Taylor to trade Blake rather than letting him walk away with no return. The team dealt Blake and Steven Reinprecht to Colorado for Adam Deadmarsh, Aaron Miller, Jared Aulin and first-round draft picks in 2001 and 2003. Blake went on to win the Cup with the Avalanche and re-signed with the team, playing four more full seasons.
He returned to the Kings for the 2006-07 season and became a mentor to the young players, even taking Jack Johnson to live with him and his family. Hip surgery in the spring of 2007 slowed Blake considerably and, knowing his time to win the Cup again was limited, he left after the 2007-08 season for San Jose, thinking the Sharks were closer to a championship than the Kings were.
Blake played each of the last two seasons under one-year contracts; the Sharks were upset in the first round of the playoffs in 2009 and lost to eventual champion Chicago in the West finals this season.
The Kings haven’t said anything about retiring his number or otherwise honoring him soon, but they probably will in a few years, and they should. Blake left the first time because he wanted to test free agency, which came later in a player’s career under the old collective bargaining agreement than it does now. The Kings wouldn’t pay him what he wanted, and he left and won the Cup. So did Luc Robitaille.
Blake left the second time because he thought the Sharks were closer to winning the Cup than the Kings, who were then in the early rebuilding stages. He didn’t win the Cup in San Jose, but it’s not his fault Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley develop hollow spaces where their hearts should be once the playoffs begin.
His current and former teammates respected him -- Robitaille offered this tribute -- and in a sport where the team ethic means so much, that says a lot.
-- Helene Elliott
Photo: Rob Blake in 2006. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho.