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Stanley Cup FINALS : The Farm System : Rob Blake Was Willing to Work Hard to Avoid Hard Work of the Family Spread

June 05, 1993|CHRIS BAKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The boys were about to begin their hockey game on Rob Blake's pond on the family farm in Simcoe, Canada.

"You can't be Gretzky because I'm Gretzky," a dark-haired boy told his friend.

"How come you always get to be Gretzky?" the other boy asked.

Blake overheard the conversation and smiled.

"You guys fight over who's going to be Wayne Gretzky," Blake said. "I'm Larry Robinson."

*

Blake idolized Robinson, who was twice selected as the NHL's best defenseman and helped the Montreal Canadiens win five Stanley Cups before signing with the Kings as a free agent in 1989.

After Blake and Robinson became teammates when Blake joined the Kings in 1990, Blake resisted the temptation to ask for Robinson's autograph.

"I never met him as a kid," Blake said of Robinson. "Actually, I didn't meet him until I played here. It was a big thrill for me. I didn't want to ask for his autograph. It was enough of a thrill just to be in the same room as him, let alone to be on the ice with him and be a partner with him at times.

"He's a guy who played 20 years, and was one of the best defensemen and could teach us a lot. It wasn't that he'd sit you down and tell you what to do. I learned more from just watching his style and watching the way he played.

"He played both ends hard, and he was aggressive defensively and he threw the big hits. But he could also play offense. He anchored the power play and could jump in the (offense). He was a great all-around defenseman."

King Coach Barry Melrose says Blake, who has helped the Kings reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in their 26-year history, has the potential to be as good as Robinson.

"I think he's going to be one of the great young defensemen in the NHL," Melrose said of Blake. "I think he's going to win the Norris Trophy (awarded to the NHL's best defenseman) as soon as he puts his mind to it. He's a great talent.

"He shoots. He's a hitter, and he's got great offensive ability and he's a good defenseman. If you put everything together, you've got a hell of a package."

King defenseman Marty McSorley agrees. "I don't know if Rob Blake knows how good Rob Blake can be," McSorley said. "He's a very talented individual. He moves very, very well. He does things that are very, very impressive."

Blake, who grew up on a 150-acre farm in Simcoe, a town of 14,000 located 90 miles south of Toronto, realized at a young age that he didn't want to spend his life raising corn, wheat and soybeans.

Blake's father, Robert, said his son never developed a fondness for farming.

"Robert never liked to do work on the farm all that much," he said. "Of all the boys (he has two other sons), he did the least on the farm."

Blake, who began skating at the at 3 on the family's two ponds, quickly developed an interest in hockey. After playing hockey for two years on the pond, be began playing in a youth hockey league at 5.

"I used to have hockey games every Saturday, and that's when a lot of the work was done on a farm," Blake said. "I used to go to the hockey game, and my brothers used to go out and work."

Blake didn't begin his career as a defenseman.

"I was a goalie for about half a year because we didn't have another guy to go in net," Blake said. "I enjoyed it, but I didn't want to play goalie all the time. I've been a defenseman ever since."

Drafted by the Kings after his freshman year at Bowling Green in 1988, Blake remained in school for two more years until joining the Kings after Bowling Green completed its 1990 season.

"I think any kid that grows up in Canada dreams of playing in the NHL," Blake said. "It's a satisfying feeling when you do play your first game."

Blake quickly adapted to the NHL, playing in the Kings' final four regular-season games and eight of their 10 playoff games.

"We had a lot of experience with guys like Larry (Robinson) and Tim Watters, who helped me adapt quickly," Blake said. "The first four games were really a learning experience, and after that I had to become a player.

"You never stop learning in this game. Even Larry is the first one to say that after 20 years. The main thing I have to do is become more consistent. Instead of having one good game and one bad, I have to be more consistent."

McSorley said Blake's maturity enabled him to make the transition to the NHL.

"He was a good enough skater and he was a big enough kid and he had a great deal of maturity and those ingredients enabled him to come in with an open mind," McSorley said. "He didn't try to be a super offensive defenseman off the bat. He tried to develop a good strong base, and he did."

King assistant Cap Raeder, who coaches the defensemen and goalies, agrees.

"I was really surprised at his composure coming out of college," Raeder said. "And he's carried that a little further, and now he's a leader for the younger guys."

Blake, 23, has taken rookie defensemen Alexei Zhitnik, 20, and Darryl Sydor, 21, under his wing.

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