Kings legend Rob Blake’s hockey career to come full circle with jersey retirement
The story of Rob Blake starts the way that so many other hockey stories start: On a frozen pond on a family ranch in Canada.
Blake’s parents, Robert and Sandra, grew corn and soybeans on a 200-acre farm in Simcoe, Ontario, just north of Lake Erie. There was a pond on the property. When it froze, Blake and his buddies would get a game going. They pretended to be the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs.
And like many others who played pond hockey, Blake grew up to be an NHL player. The Hall of Fame defenseman’s illustrious career spanned 21 years with three different teams. He reached the holy grail just once, hoisting the Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche — and won the Norris trophy in 1998 with the Kings.
Blake, now an assistant general manager with the Kings, has played — and seen — a lot of hockey in his career, but if you ask one of his best friends, former goalie Dwayne Roloson, he’s still the same guy he was as a kid on the pond.
"What he was like then and what he’s like now, not much has changed," Roloson said. "He’s still just a kind person. He wants the best for everybody and that’s the way he was raised. A lot of great qualities in life for him."
It was all of those qualities — great on the ice and off — that led to this next chapter, that is being written back in California where his NHL career started. Blake will have his No. 4 jersey retired a pregame ceremony before Saturday night’s Freeway Faceoff game against the Anaheim Ducks. He’ll become only the sixth player that the franchise has ever honored with a number retirement, joining former teammates Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Dave Taylor up in the Staples Center rafters.
Blake began his career on the pond not as a defenseman, but as a goalie. But as Blake got taller, he knew he would need to change positions. He developed a big, heavy slapshot that Roloson never liked facing on the pond or in the NHL.
"He hit me a couple times in the ankles and when we were kids, he kind of broke my foot," Roloson said. "You always knew it was coming."
Let the bodies hit the Four pic.twitter.com/ytMSzsMhTO
— LA Kings (@LAKings) January 16, 2015
Blake began to get taller and somewhere along the line, he acquired a Montreal Larry Robinson sweater. Robinson became his role model and then eventually his teammate on the Kings.
"I was very fortunate in that situation," he said. "Being a defenseman and being a little taller at the time, it was Larry I had always idolized. If I skated on the pond or played road hockey, I wore his jersey all of the time.
"I still remember that moment, walking into the Forum for the first time and seeing him right next to me and introducing himself like, ‘Hi, I’m Larry.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve known that for about 15 years.’ It was special."
It was a very special group that Blake came into when he was drafted. He played with his childhood idol in Robinson and every hockey player’s idol in Gretzky. He played with Robitaille before he became a coworker. Taylor became his mentor after his college coach at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Jerry York, phoned Taylor to make sure he took care of Blake on the road.
But that group never brought a Stanley Cup back to Los Angeles. Blake wasn’t able to do that until he signed on to work with general manager Dean Lombardi prior to last season.
This new role is a natural fit. He enjoys the interactions with the current players and it’s a natural bridge between the team and Lombardi at times.
"Talking to players, I love it," he said. "I’ll sit in my office and Kopi or Drew or Brownie or any of these guys stop up here after practice. Most of the time it’s hockey-related but other times it has nothing to do with the game. I’m sure Dean had this in mind when he hired me for my role, but that’s what I used to do as a player too. That’s what we did."
— LA Kings (@LAKings) January 16, 2015
His new position challenges him in ways he never expected but it’s a challenge he welcomes. It allows him to spend some more time with his kids – two teens that blend Canada and the South Bay by playing hockey and surfing — and a toddler.
The job also involves him serving as the GM for the Manchester Monarchs. He still goes out on the ice to talk to players. He’s always had an ability to relate to others, a big part of why he wore the C on his chest, and it’s why he’s finding not only success, but a tremendous sense of accomplishment in his front-office position.
"It’s to the point where I wanted to get to," Blake said. "It wasn’t the smoothest road, that’s for sure. But it is what I wanted to get to from an early stage. I think with my background, and where I grew up and everything, my idea was to come to the NHL and play on one team the whole time through. Realistically, that’s very hard to do. But now, to have this kind of fulfillment on this weekend kind of relays what I wanted to do when I got here."
Blake said that leaving L.A. was the toughest part of his career. Come Saturday, when the No. 4 is up in the rafters, he’ll never have to leave again.