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Blake, Johnson bond through Kings

Helene Elliott

October 25, 2007|Helene Elliott

Rob Blake, two months from his 38th birthday and still regaining his timing and touch after hip surgery last spring, won't be part of the Kings' future.

But he can see it every day across his breakfast table and know that his influence will resonate long after he delivers his last teeth-rattling check.

Blake, the Kings' captain, now measures his career in months, not years. He's not the physical force he once was, though his experience and booming shot from the point make him invaluable on a team that is just beginning to explore its capabilities.

Before he's done, whether it's next summer or a year or two later, he's intent on passing along the wisdom teammates imparted to him when he was a wide-eyed kid out of Bowling Green, full of promise and dreams and eager to learn the ways of the hockey world.

Partly because he's generous and partly because he has so much he wants to say, Blake invited 20-year-old teammate Jack Johnson to live at the Blake family's South Bay home this season.

They eat together. Drive to games at Staples Center together. Play mini-hockey with Rob and Brandy Blake's 6-year-old son, Jack, and 4-year-old daughter, Brooke, who have become Johnson's surrogate siblings.

"We have some good little mini-hockey games in the kitchen," said Johnson, who has a 9-year-old brother back home in Detroit.

"I'm on their level sometimes. It's a fun kind of escape from reality to be in their world."

Johnson and Blake also watch TV together -- usually a hockey game, the better to feed Johnson's voracious appetite for the facts and lore and nuances of the game.

Blake is happy to oblige.

This is the final season of the two-year contract that brought him back from Colorado, where the Kings traded him in 2001 after they refused to pay the $9.6-million salary he probably merited more than he does the $6 million they're paying him now. He will be well into retirement when Johnson fully matures, but he will be able to take some credit for the success Johnson achieves in the NHL.

If Johnson can bring Los Angeles the Stanley Cup championship that Blake could not win here -- the title he tearfully left town to earn -- Blake can feel fulfilled.

"It's fun for me to watch him because 15, 20 years from now, there'll still be a part of me there," Blake said. "I was one of the guys when he first was around. I was so fortunate when I first got here, to be around Larry [Robinson] and Paul Coffey, Marty McSorley, Tony Granato, Wayne Gretzky. I can name so many those first four or five years there that helped shape you.

"On the ice, your talent is understood. But it's away from the rink, it's being professional, understanding how important the game of hockey is. We owe everything that we have in our life to the game, and when you respect it like that, it does treat you well. Jack has that respect early. He has it for the players, he has it for the game."

That attitude was shaped by watching the Red Wings of the last decade, teams that mixed skill with grit and took their cues from the class of Igor Larionov, near-flawless defense of Nicklas Lidstrom and indomitable will of Steve Yzerman.

"I grew up watching them since I was a young kid," said Johnson, who wasn't a kid all that long ago.

For Johnson, seeing Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov and Yzerman "was the norm. Future hall of famers."

Johnson is living with another. Blake won the Norris Trophy in 1998 and was a finalist in 2000; has played in seven All-Star games, was a first- or second-team All-Star four times and won an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2002.

"I'm definitely trying to take as much of Rob's game and make it my own as I can," said Johnson, who suffered a charley horse Tuesday but hopes to play tonight against Dallas.

"He's such a great player and he's had such great success. I'm trying to learn as much as I can from him."

He didn't hesitate when Blake, mindful that the other rookies were gone or had other living arrangements, asked Johnson to move in. Plus, Blake hasn't asked him to pay rent.

"If I annoy him enough he might," Johnson said, laughing. "I've got a feeling he'll have a phone bill for me to pay. I'm on the phone to my little brother a lot."

His conversations with Blake range from how to play a certain situation to larger philosophical questions.

"Whatever comes into my head," Johnson said. "I love getting a chance to learn something new, especially from a guy like him."

Blake has learned that he will leave the Kings in good hands with Johnson, Michael Cammalleri and other youngsters who have a chance to recast the Kings' image into that of a winner.

"I want to see the Kings win one year. I want to see Jack. I want to see Cammy," Blake said. "The success they have, that's what makes the game so special. Even when you're not playing the game, when you're done, when you can look back and say, 'We were part of that,' that's what it is.

"Even in Colorado I was part of it. That whole organization thrived around winning the Cup, and once you do that, all those memories stay forever. If you can built that around here, these guys have a great future ahead of them."

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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