Former Kings captain and defenseman Rob Blake will take his leadership… (Los Angeles Times )
In its eagerness to develop a following in Europe, the NHL overlooked an audience closer to home: its Western Conference.
Western teams routinely jump time zones on winding trips and are stuck with less experienced referees working their games. NHL executives often attend games in the East but rarely venture past the Hudson River. Players feel overlooked by fans, league officials and the media.
Former Kings defenseman Rob Blake, the NHL's new hockey operations manager, can't change all of that. But as the first hockey operations executive based outside league headquarters, he hopes to give a voice to players who toil beyond the Eastern power axis.
"I lived that firsthand. Being a player out here in the West and playing my whole career here, you do kind of feel that you're forgotten," said Blake, who retired last summer after a 19-season career that included parts of 14 seasons with the Kings, a Norris Trophy and a Stanley Cup title with Colorado in 2001.
"Everything's central to New York and Toronto. They have representatives at all the games, but you might not see them or they might be people you don't recognize. I think I can add a little bit of that to the West Coast and at the same time meet some of the players out here because I've retired so recently and I still keep in touch with a lot of them."
Blake, 41, wanted to stay involved in the game but wasn't sure how until Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's vice president of hockey and business development, approached him with ideas for him to learn the league's hockey and business operations.
Blake is staying in Los Angeles and will be around the Kings, Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Phoenix Coyotes as a sounding board and conduit for players' concerns. Every month or so, he will go to New York and Toronto for meetings and to experience the "war room," where controversial plays are reviewed.
On his first major project, he teamed with Shanahan to revamp the All-Star game, which ditched geographical rivalries and allocated players in a fantasy draft. "We tried to bring some new life to it. I don't know if you can ever do that the right way," he said.
He said players liked picking the teams and the entrants for the skills competitions. Singling out the last player to be picked — Phil Kessel's unfortunate fate last week — probably won't happen again. The draft, which was a huge hit on Canadian TV, is likely to return.
"I thought Nick Lidstrom and Eric Staal did a tremendous job of taking it to be fun," Blake said of the team captains. "It wasn't mean to be a serious thing, and an All-Star game is a show. A couple of the new skills demonstrated how talented these players are."
Blake will also work with the competition committee and the summer development program, which tests potential rule changes. He said he expects more discussions on blows to the head, a hot issue highlighted by concussions suffered by Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Boston's Marc Savard. Blake said he believes players are slowly adapting to the rule instituted last March to eliminate blindside hits and hits that target the head.
"I've watched a lot of games lately where I've seen guys with an opportunity to take a hit and they either pull up a little or they hit a different way, and I think that's because they're starting to understand it," Blake said.
Blake also coaches his 9-year-old son's squirt team alongside Nelson Emerson of the Kings' player development department. In their first game, they faced a team coached by former Ducks Craig Johnson and Scott Niedermayer. Former King Mathieu Schneider coached in the next game.
"Twenty years ago when I came out here you wouldn't have seen anything like that," Blake said.
Or the NHL caring about the West.
The struggling Kessel ignited a firestorm in Toronto on Sunday when he told reporters, "Maybe be it's just not working out here, I guess; I can't get anything going. Maybe it's time for a change or something." When asked whether he and Toronto Coach Ron Wilson had discussed the skid off the ice, Kessel replied, "Me and Ron don't really talk." General Manager Brian Burke, who gave up two first-round picks for Kessel, is sure to have his say soon.