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SPORTS EXTRA: NHL '98-99 | BREAKING THE ICE

Blake No Longer Needs to Be Defensive About Potential Unrealized

October 08, 1998|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His was unrealized potential, and no burden is heavier for an athlete. But Rob Blake was well on his way to relief when the Kings went east at the end of March for their final long trip of last season.

He almost blew it.

"When his game suffered last year, it came when he somehow got advice from somebody who said in order to win the Norris [Trophy, given to the NHL's best defenseman] he had to be more productive offensively," King Coach Larry Robinson says.

"When we went on that East Coast trip, the whole time he was pressing and trying to score and put up big numbers. He was struggling."

And putting up nothing.

Blake had been marked for greatness when he came to the Kings directly from Bowling Green University in 1990. He was a big, strong defenseman with a booming shot and the quiet aura of leadership. He had good seasons, injury-marred seasons, then hardly a season at all, in 1995-96, when he blew out his knee.

He was with an up-and-coming team . . . then with a team one series from the ultimate in success in the NHL . . . and then with a team going nowhere.

And then he was back, and the Kings were playoff-bound and he was leading the NHL's defensemen in goals, getting his 22nd on March 28, when the Kings began the trip at Calgary.

Suddenly, he was trying to score goals when shots weren't there.

"He was jumping in on the offense all the time, getting caught out of position," Robinson says. "Everybody has his own philosophy, and my philosophy is that if you're in good position defensively, you're also in good position offensively. It doesn't mean you're a defensive person. It just means you're going to have the puck more because you're in better position to get the puck. And you can't go on offense unless you have the puck."

He told Blake all of this and more.

"He just basically told me to play the same way I had been playing before," Blake says. "Don't get caught up in all the hype. Do what I had been doing to that point and things will be OK."

And Blake was getting caught up in the hype.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "It's natural that you're going to. He knew I was too. He'd been through it."

Robinson won the Norris Trophy twice while playing for the Montreal Canadiens.

"If you look at the history of the Norris Trophy, it's points, there's no doubt about it," Blake says. "He said if you start trying to get points, you won't get them. It's true. The more relaxed you are, the more you're going to be in the open. If you're pushing it, trying to get things done that you know you're not capable of doing, you're going to fall behind."

Blake caught up, scored in the season's next-to-last game, April 16 at St. Louis, and 10 weeks later was awarded the trophy.

Potential realized.

And what do you do for an encore?

You ponder a roller-coaster career with a roller-coaster franchise and enjoy a suddenly inviting, broad boulevard in front of you.

You remember the past, and that makes the present so much greater.

You are asked about the knee you blew out, and you say you have to look down to remember, but that's a facade. You remember, because you have the perspective of success and failure.

You remember because you remember 1993, and the Stanley Cup finals lost to Montreal in five games.

"You get there and you think this is the way it should be every year," he says. "I guess I was young enough and naive enough to think that we just get in the playoffs and get into the finals every year.

"And then we missed [the playoffs] for [four] years. That's a lesson I learned. When that opportunity comes around, you've got to take advantage of it because it might not come around again."

Players were sent away. An owner was sent away. Coaches came and went. Blake signed a four-year, $10-million contract. He blew out his knee, then broke his hand.

Blake felt guilty because his work ethic was offended. He was being paid to play and couldn't. His team was awful, and he couldn't do anything about it.

"When he's not in the lineup, it leaves a huge hole," winger Matt Johnson says. "Without Blake, you can't help but notice that there's a difference. You can't say we missed the playoffs because we didn't have Rob, but he definitely would have made a difference. He's our big player, and not a lot of teams can go without their big player."

It was frustrating.

Born in Ontario, Canada, Blake had adopted Southern California and wanted to make it his permanent home, which was fine for the off-season, but . . .

"You don't want to be part of a team that's going nowhere, and that's what this was for three years," he says. "It wasn't heading in any direction at all. You sit and never ask to get out of here, but it got to a point where it wasn't fun playing here anymore."

He was 24, 25, 26 . . . going on 65.

"Even when we played our best, we weren't going to win," he says. "We just didn't have the talent. We had guys who shouldn't have been here playing for a lot of years. We didn't have the depth, we didn't have the players."

And then it became fun again.

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