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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS / 1998 PREVIEW SECTION

Blake Hits It Big

You Might Not Recognize Him on the Street, but Kings' Veteran Defenseman Is Making His Presence Felt on the Ice

April 22, 1998|LONNIE WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Star: A person who excels or performs brilliantly in a given activity, especially a sport.

--Webster's New World Dictionary

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Anyone who still believes the Kings lack a star player must not have watched defenseman Rob Blake this season. In his first injury-free season since 1993-94, Blake emerged not only as a team leader on and off the ice but as a solid candidate to win the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.

Offensively, Blake set a personal best in goals with 23, tops in the NHL at his position.

His open-ice hits have become as feared in hockey as a Mark McGwire home run in baseball or a Shaquille O'Neal dunk in basketball. Getting hit by Blake's trademark check--which features more of his backside than his hip--can make a player a highlight victim on "SportsCenter."

"He's a pretty big guy and when he gets you in his sights, you know you're going to get hit hard," St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger told the Hockey News. "He makes those big [butt] hits."

The Kings might still add an offensive marquee player this summer, but right now Blake, who will be a restricted free agent after the season, is the team's star.

His performance is judged every game. When the Kings struggle, fans blame him. When he was hurt and sat out 120 of 212 games the previous three seasons, critics said he was fragile and overrated.

But now that the Kings have returned to the playoffs after a five-year hiatus, Blake, 28, is getting much of the credit for the turnaround.

For the first time in his career, he is being accorded the level of respect as team captain that his predecessors Wayne Gretzky and Dave Taylor had.

"You don't become a star until you get in the playoffs and you do something once you're there," Blake said, referring to the Kings' first-round playoff series matchup against the St. Louis Blues. "The regular season is great when you do well, but to be recognized, you have to do something in the playoffs.

"If we were in the playoffs consistently for the last five years and advanced two or three rounds and maybe won the [Stanley] Cup, and I was healthy, then I would have probably been [called a star] by now."

Blake gained recognition in his third full NHL season on a veteran King team that reached the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. It was during that season that Gretzky and then-King coach Barry Melrose called him a future Norris Trophy winner.

"My first few years in the league, I played a lot but no one really talked that much about me; it was always potential," Blake said. "Then we go to the finals and all of a sudden the next year I'm on the all-star team and stuff like that. I didn't change my game, but I went to the playoffs and people were able to recognize me."

Now in his eighth full season with the Kings, Blake has warmed to the Los Angeles area. He and his fiancee, Brandi Fleming, live near the ocean in Manhattan Beach.

"It's definitely a big change from our Canadian ways," said Blake's father, Bob Sr., who lives with his wife in Simcoe, Canada. "But Rob looked at it as a challenge, and he's made it work. He seems to enjoy it. . . . It's really nice to visit him there, but I'm always happy to get back home."

Blake already is regarded as a star in Canada. He's a key figure on Canadian national teams and has been named the top defenseman in the last two world championships.

But because of the number of high-profile individuals in the Los Angeles area, Blake still has a measure of anonymity here.

"When we go to Canada, it's crazy because he's treated like such a big deal," said Fleming, who will be married to Blake in June. "They are such hockey fans there. Around here, there are just so many celebrities walking around."

Blake, who says being widely regarded as a star isn't important to him, has achieved a respect for hockey and his health after dealing with various injuries, from a torn knee ligament to torn triceps to a broken hand.

That's why he followed teammate Matt Johnson's urging and began working out with T.R. Goodman last summer. Goodman, a fitness guru, also helps NHL players such as Chris Chelios and Rick Tocchet and volleyball player Gabrielle Reece during the off-season.

"He puts us through a workout that's tough, but it not only gets you strong for the season, it mentally prepares you," Blake said about Goodman's "Pro Camp" based in Marina del Rey. "[Goodman] is on you every day. He doesn't let you slip. I used to work out by myself and if I was tired I might cut a few corners. He doesn't let you get away with that, he gets your mind-set to the point that you have to be dedicated year round."

Blake has followed Goodman's program throughout the season and says the extra workouts have made him stronger than ever for this time of year.

"The thing about Rob is that he's so easy to deal with that sometimes he seems so passive," Goodman said. "But this season people are seeing a different [nastier] side. That's because he's confident, strong and healthy now."

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