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Blake battled demons of cancer, depression

by James Murphy

After a tumultuous first season in Toronto both on and off the ice, Maple Leafs forward Jason Blake has found a new lease on life and his career. Blake took time recently to discuss his up-and-down season, what he learned from the experience and how he plans on using these lessons both as a hockey player and a person.

At this time last year, Blake was looking on building off his 40-goal season with the Islanders in his first season in Toronto. He would soon learn, however, that money and success mean nothing without your health and family. Three games into the 2007-08 season, Blake announced he had been diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). While considered fatal just five or six years ago, now there is a survival rate of 85-90 percent thanks to a pill called Gleevec, which is taken once a day.

"When I found out, it wasn't, 'Why me,'" Blake said at the time. "I looked at it like I'm the lucky one. This is something that is thrown at me, and things get thrown at you for a reason. But I can play hockey and (live a normal life), so I feel like the lucky one."

Blake, who had watched his wife successfully battle thyroid cancer during the 2000-01 season, admitted recently that in the months following his diagnosis, he indeed struggled with "Why me" emotional and mental symptoms, questioning his desire to still play hockey, and at times, "hating life and everyone." Despite being able to play the remaining 79 games after his diagnosis, Blake confessed that he was never fully engaged on the ice and battled self-pity, depression and a lack of motivation off it.

"I spent the first two months of the season after I found out about my condition just banging my head on the pavement and trying to figure out 'Why me?'" he said. "It was just really difficult to comprehend the magnitude of it. I tried my best to move on and played 82 games, but deep down inside it took its toll on me. Physically, I lost 12 pounds in the first month on the medication. I'll be the first to admit I wasn't a great person to deal with and I wasn't always the best teammate over the years.

"Last year there were times where I just hated life and hated everybody, and just kept asking, 'Why me?' I didn't want to go play sometimes and I just didn't have the desire anymore. It's scary when that happens. But I was just questioning a lot about my life and hockey just seemed to take a back seat at times."

As the season wore on through, Blake said the constant love and support from his family and the outpouring of support from friends, teammates, the Leafs organization and the hockey community made him realize how lucky he was.

This summer, Blake revisited his roots and now has a clearer picture on his life and his career.

"We spent the summer in Minneapolis and I really took the time to clear my head and look back on the past year," Blake said. "I learned so much about myself over the last year. I think the most important thing I learned, though, was that as athletes and as people we tend to take life for granted and we forget how fortunate we are. I have the most beautiful wife that will do absolutely anything for me, I have three amazing children, unbelievable family and friends, and I play for a great team and organization.

"I can't say enough about how first class the Leafs organization was and I just want to thank them and the hockey community in general for their support. When you go through something like this, it means so much to know how many people are behind you. To that, I want to apologize to everyone, my family and my teammates, for the way I was at times. I'm just sorry if I was hard to deal with."

Blake is raring to get the season going, and while he acknowledged the major changes that have taken place with the Leafs, he believes that just as he feels like he has a new lease on life, the Leafs may have a chance to start again and build toward the future.

"Like I said, I've really cleared my head and I'm in the right state of mind now as we go into a new season," he said. "We need to have the same outlook with our team. Let's face it, this is a completely different team than the one that was here last season, but if we can find a new identity and use that as a tool on the ice, I think we can surprise people and build something here.

"You see what teams like Boston and the Flyers did last season with their best players, (Patrice) Bergeron and Simon Gagne out, and it shows you that if you buy into a system and compete every night, you can win in this League."

Whatever may happen in the coming months, Blake is happy to be healthy and playing, and to have the life he has.

"I think we can be a fun team to watch and I do think we will compete every night," he said. "I'm just really happy to have figured things out and be back."

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