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Blake feels reborn with Sharks

by Larry Wigge
Challenge a champion and you get quite a few chemical reactions -- all of which usually start with some fireworks and are followed by something pretty special.

For Rob Blake, the thought of leaving his comfortable life on Manhattan Beach in Southern California at this point in his life was a little scary. But ...

"I knew I wanted to play another year," the 38-year-old defenseman recalled, "but I wasn't quite sure where that was going to take me. The Kings didn't show they wanted me back. Then, I got a phone call from (San Jose Sharks GM) Doug Wilson, who expressed a keen interest. Then told me about his plan: New coach, new offensive system that emphasized moving the puck from defense up the ice with speed and included lots of traffic, lots of shots on goal.

"He also said he was going after (Tampa Bay defenseman) Danny Boyle. My heart was beating fast. I hadn't felt that way since I was traded to Colorado in 2001."

The last time Rob Blake left the comfortable life of Southern California, it took him to Denver and a Stanley Cup title with the Avalanche in 2001. You can talk about trying to turn the clock back seven years and how an aging veteran might not be the same. But that isn't the case with a champion sinking his teeth into another challenge like the one Blake was given by Doug Wilson after he was signed as a free agent to a one-year, $5 million contract July 3.

I wondered how long it took Rob to say yes to Wilson, who made Blake his first call at 9:01 on July 1, just one minute after teams were allowed to contact free agents.

"I talked to Brandy about moving the kids up north for the season because I wanted us to be together for this. The conversation didn't last long. My wife could see that I was pumped up by the idea of joining the Sharks," Blake told me.

Excited. Adrenaline flowing. Heart pumping. Yes, challenging a champion produces a loud reaction if you look at how Rob Blake looks reborn playing for the Sharks.

A year ago, Rob looked as if he might be done -- a brilliant career fizzling out. Today, he's among the League's most productive defensemen, with 10 goals and 33 assists and a plus-20 ranking in 67 games, and looks like he could play another four or five more seasons. And that's coming off an injury-plagued season in which he had just 9 goals and 22 assists and a minus-19.

"You don't know if the chemistry between you and the rest of the guys is going to work," Blake said. "But from the moment we all got together, it was a lot like that trade to Colorado. You come to the rink expecting to win, pushing to win. It's exciting."

Expecting to win. Think about that for a moment. That's the chemical reaction you get from a dressing room of winners -- adding coach Todd McLellan, who won a Stanley Cup as an assistant coach in Detroit last season, Blake, who won his title with the Avalanche in 2001, Boyle, who raised the Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, and defenseman Brad Lukowich, who enjoyed championships with Dallas in 1999 and Tampa Bay in '04.

I'll never forget Wilson telling me about his game plan after a morning skate in Dallas in the second round of the playoffs last spring.

"In this business, you know what you want. But trying to acquire players to fill your needs doesn't always happen in the time frame you want or at the price you want to pay," he said. "I made no secret of the fact that trying to find the right defensemen was a key for us."

At the time, Wilson thought the defenseman that provided the push, speed and skill to move the puck up ice and create offensive chances was Brian Campbell, whom the Sharks had acquired from the Buffalo Sabres at the February trading deadline for right wing prospect Steve Bernier and a first-round draft choice. Campbell helped the Sharks go 18-0-2 in an incredible stretch going into the final two regular-season games, while contributing 19 points in those 20 games. But he wasn't as involved in the overall game for San Jose in the playoffs and found a new dance partner in free agency. Chicago gave him an eight-year, $56.8 million deal.

Adding Blake, Boyle and Lukowich to a defense that already had up-and-coming talent Marc-Edouard Vlasic, quick Christian Ehrhoff and rugged Douglas Murray sounded precisely like that vision Wilson told me about.

"You don't know if the chemistry between you and the rest of the guys is going to work. But from the moment we all got together, it was a lot like that trade to Colorado. You come to the rink expecting to win, pushing to win. It's exciting."
-- Rob Blake

Blake was the key first piece for Wilson.

"Rob is a player we have pursued for a couple of years now, so this acquisition is special for me," Wilson said. "It's not often that you can find a Norris Trophy-winning, seven-time All-Star defenseman who has won a Stanley Cup. It's my feeling that great players thrive when they have the opportunity to win."

Wilson added that every move is made to show the players that the team is actively involved in trying to give them all the ammunition they need to win a Cup. Blake and Boyle help the Sharks now and Wilson dealt veteran defenseman Craig Rivet to Buffalo for a pair of second-round draft choices to help the team continue to build up its prospect pool.

Stanley Cup teams win not by getting offense from just one or two defensemen. Look at how Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Brad Stuart and Niklas Kronwall all contributed to the offense in Detroit's Cup run.

Opportunities to win the Stanley Cup often do that to veteran players.

"He's been everything we could ask of him," McLellan said. "We wanted him to shoot the puck and be Rob Blake. We didn't want him to be a tutor or a direct mentor to young players on the team.

"We just wanted him to do his thing, and by doing that, he has become a tutor and a mentor. But he's been more to our team than just that. He's been very good."

Blake said he knows there are people in San Jose who wish the team could have gotten him five years ago. But Rob chooses to turn that clock back to 2001, when he joined up with Ray Bourque and Adam Foote in Denver to form a Big 3 arguably comparable to one of those great Montreal Canadiens defenses orchestrated by Serge Savard, Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe, who worked the transition game from defense to offense with perfection ...

"Obviously every guy would love to be five years younger," Blake explained. "I look at Ray Bourque doing the same thing coming from Boston to Colorado to win a Cup. When you're older, you need to be in the spot where you have the opportunity to win every night. That's all that's left in the game. It makes it fun."

For his part, Wilson believes the discussion about age is a non-issue -- citing the fact that Lidstrom is only a few months younger than Blake and that Dallas' Sergei Zubov at 38 and Brian Rafalski at 35 are among the game's most productive defensemen.

"The final third of last season, he was about as good as I've seen him play in a long time," Wilson said. "But the one thing you never question about Rob Blake is his fitness and work ethic to do what's necessary."

Blake's resume does not come with the terms “old” or “over-the-hill” on it. A champion never gives in. Never gives up. Which reminded Rob once again of Wilson's words on the early-morning July 1 phone call.

"He talked about me challenging myself," Blake recalled.

The words resonated when Rob said them out loud.

On opening night, the proof was in the performance. Blake was like a shooting machine. He had six shots on goal during one seven-minute stretch full of power plays — and seven total shots before the second intermission. He wound up with two key assists in a 4-1 victory against Anaheim.

"I had a chance to play with Rob at several international tournaments and we've built a friendship over the years," said Sharks center Joe Thornton. "I knew he'd fit right into our group ... and, more important, help us win. He excels in every situation."

Blake and Boyle and Lukowich have all helped the Sharks to one of the best records this season. Coincidence? I think not.

"I've always felt that good movement on offense helps open things up," Blake explained. "You get those shooting lanes you can take advantage of. The opportunity to choose from players to pass to."
"I've always felt that good movement on offense helps open things up. You get those shooting lanes you can take advantage of. The opportunity to choose from players to pass to." -- Rob Blake
There was a big smile on that 38-year-old, battle-scarred face when he said that.

"There were times the last couple of years that people might have questioned if the old man still had the kind of shot that could still be effective. Not me," Blake continued. "Here I have the puck a lot, with a chance to do something with it. The last couple of years, I found myself chasing the puck. Going in the wrong direction."

The direction Blake is going now makes him one of the top point-producing defensemen in the NHL and has helped the Sharks challenge for the top spot in the standings.
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