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A Return to His Castle

Blake is back with the Kings after playing the role of villain for 4-plus seasons with Colorado.

October 04, 2006|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The King of Manhattan Beach came loping down the street.

Rob Blake, looking like any beach-bum-variety resident who haunts this upscale seaside community, shuffled along, wearing an old T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. The guy Kings fans adored, then abhorred, was making a beeline toward Uncle Bill's Pancake House, a popular locals-only-type breakfast hangout near his family's beachfront home.

Once inside, no one booed.

The owner casually walked over, shook Blake's hand and the two engaged in some old-pal-styled chitchat. Blake eased into a booth, leaned back while scanning the menu, the picture of comfort. A waitress stopped by and blurted out an excited hello, which was not followed by an autograph request.

"Did your husband do the paddle boarding?" Blake asked.

The waitress described the event. "Old friends," he said. Blake then turned to business, "Try the wraps, or the pancakes. They're both great here."

Rob Blake is home.

After spending four-plus seasons at the foot of the Rocky Mountains with the Colorado Avalanche, one of the NHL's most stable organizations, he returned to the Kings, who are considerably shakier than when he left.

This is where Blake was beloved and cherished by fans as he developed into one of the NHL's best defensemen. This is where he was hated and heckled, after failed contract negotiations led to the watershed trade late in the 2000-01 season.

"I think by keeping our place here, with our family ties, always some place in the back of my mind I figured I'd get back here," Blake said.

"To walk out under that canopy, in a Kings uniform, onto the Kings' bench, playing at Staples Center, was special. Nothing is brand new for me. It's just getting back to my roots."

*

Blake's journey came full circle this summer. The cupboard was bare in Denver, where the Avalanche had bumped into the salary-cap ceiling and Blake said team officials told him they could not re-sign him. There was only one team Blake thought about calling.

"I called Rob and told him that he had to come home," former King Luc Robitaille said. "The team that you start with is always your team. It was the best thing in the world for me to come back here. It will be the same with Rob."

Blake, 36, signed a two-year, $12-million contract on July 1, the first day of free agency. That resulted in a lot of reevaluation, and some revisionism, from Kings fans, who had grown accustomed to booing Blake after the trade. Blake had been seeking $9.6 million a season, a price Philip Anschutz, the Kings' what's-the-bottom-line owner, was unwilling to pay. He ended up getting a deal from Colorado worth $9 million a year.

But even on Letsgokings.com, where Kings fans seem to go to gripe, the posts have leaned heavily to "glad you're back" all summer and into training camp.

Actually, Blake really never left. Home was always the South Bay.

Blake has lived in Manhattan Beach since 1989 and his wife, Brandy, grew up in the town, where they intend to raise their two children, Jack and Brooke.

"The grandparents are here," Blake said with a laugh. "That's huge.

"We just got involved in the community here. I knew this was where I wanted to be when I got done playing. Your career is only so many years. My wife and her family are here, I have a lot of friends here."

Their involvement stretches across the town. The beach volleyball tournament Blake and his neighbor host for friends has become an annual Labor Day event. Blake has also picked up the season-ticket tab for a Manhattan Beach family with three quadriplegic boys, something that began when the Kings played at the Forum.

"Even when Rob went to Colorado, he'd call and tell me to still put the tickets on his credit card," said Mike Altieri, the Kings' vice president for communications.

That is Blake in the community.

"He's just a genuine guy," said Matt Van Amburgh, owner of Uncle Bill's. "There have been a lot of athletes come through here -- Eric Karros, Mike Piazza, a lot of Dodger and King players. Then they move or get traded and you never see them. Rob is always here. He's just Rob."

That type of personality is what Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi sought when sifting through free-agent possibilities this summer.

"The decision to come here shows he really cares for this franchise and wants to take it to the next step," Lombardi said. "He has a lot invested in this area. He's taking this personal."

Besides, Lombardi said, "He's still one of the top defensemen in the game."

*

The days after the Labor Day volleyball tournament/beer fest had a different feeling this year for Blake. The NHL crowd, those he shared workouts and surfing safaris with, was leaving town.

"Joe Sakic, Glen Murray and all the guys who live out here, packed up and left for their training camp," Blake said. "My wife said it felt weird to still be here. I said, 'This is what we wanted.' "

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