Rob Blake knew he was in trouble when he found himself sitting on the milk crate at the end of the bench at old St. Louis Arena. It was Nov. 20, 1993, the 21st game of the season after Blake helped the Los Angeles Kings reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Kings coach Barry Melrose wasn't giving him any free passes.
"They had a milk crate at the end of the bench because the bench wasn't long enough," Blake told NHL.com. "The first shift I had a giveaway up the middle and they scored. My next shift was coming up and I don't go. Barry calls another guy. Then he calls another guy. Eventually I'm sitting on the milk crate for two periods."
The Kings were in Dallas for a game the next night and, as Blake expected, Melrose called him into the coach's room, which was actually located inside the visitors' dressing room at Reunion Arena, to talk about his benching the night before.
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"He calls me in and says, 'Do you know why you didn't play last night?'" Blake said. "I said, 'I wasn't very good in the first.' He goes, 'You're right.' I said something along the lines of, 'It happens, we play a lot of games.' He absolutely lost it on me."
Blake said Melrose lit into him, telling him that if he wants to be an elite defenseman in the NHL he has to play at an elite level in every game and practice, but if he wanted to be average he can play like he did in St. Louis and accept it.
Melrose didn't think Blake was average.
"Rob would always come in and say, 'Well, I'll be better next game,'" Melrose said. "I was like, 'That's not good enough. You're entirely too good for that way of thinking. We're not going to accept you being good every two games.'"
"It was the first time I got challenged like that," Blake said. "It made me realize that I'm not just playing anymore, that if I want to do something I've gotta be able to do it all the time."
Just south of 21 years to the day of that talk in Dallas, Rob Blake will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, Nov. 17.
Melrose isn't surprised.
"When I first got to L.A., I expected Rob Blake to be better than Rob Blake expected Rob Blake to be," said Melrose, who coached the Kings from 1992-95. "I saw his immense talent. I saw his size. I saw his skating ability. I saw his shot. I saw his toughness. Robby took some nights off. I don't think he thought of himself as a great NHL defenseman, and I did. All my discussions with Rob when he was young, when I first got there, were about him accepting that."
Melrose said he told Blake he could win the Norris Trophy.
"I told him, 'I look at guys who win the Norris Trophy and they're not as big as you, they're not as fast as you, they don't shoot like you, they don't skate like you,'" Melrose said. "I would say, 'Why is this guy winning the Norris Trophy? Why aren't you winning the Norris Trophy?'"
Blake won the Norris Trophy in 1998. He became one of the best defenseman to play the game.
He was a seven-time NHL All-Star, a Stanley Cup champion with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, an Olympic gold medal-winner with Canada in 2002, and a two-time gold medal-winner at the IIHF World Championship.
Blake, who played 14 of his 20 seasons in Los Angeles, is the Kings' all-time leader among defenseman in games played (805), goals (161), assists (333), points (494), power-play goals (92), game-winning goals (29) and shots (2,468). His No. 4 will be retired by the Kings on Jan. 17.
He finished his career with 777 points in 1,270 games.
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"Eventually he got it," Melrose said. "He became Shea Weber or Duncan Keith for us. Our meetings got shorter and shorter in my office. I think for about a 10-year period he was as good of a defenseman as there was in the NHL."
True to Melrose's prodding, Blake never thought he figured he'd have a long NHL career, let alone become an elite Hall of Fame NHL defenseman, when he was coming out of Bowling Green State University in 1990.
The Kings clearly did think of him that way. They signed him the morning after his collegiate career ended and brought him to Los Angeles to play the Winnipeg Jets the next day. He was 20 years old.
When Blake walked into the Forum, his locker stall was sandwiched between Wayne Gretzky's and Larry Robinson's. He would eventually realize that wasn't by accident.
"And Larry is my partner in the game," Blake said. "He's who I idolized growing up. I used to wear 19. I was so naive that it was perfect. I didn't know any better."
Said Robinson: "He wasn't at all out of place. Right off the bat, he was a nice, polite kid who could skate and had a cannon of a shot but who just needed some refinement. But you knew he was going to be a good one because he fit right in right away."
Blake had 46 points in 75 games as a rookie in 1990-91. It was a glimpse into the future of a defenseman who matched his size (6-foot-4, 220) with excellent mobility and the ability to lay crushing hip checks.
"I remember Larry Robinson talking about him and how he hadn't seen a young defenseman that good at that age," Kings Hall of Fame forward Luc Robitaille said. "We knew right then and there that he was going to be a difference maker for us."
Blake appeared in 57 games in 1991-92 and had 20 points. He broke out in his third season with 59 points, including 16 goals on 243 shots, in 76 games. The Kings reached the Stanley Cup Final, with Blake contributing 10 points in 23 playoff games.
The Kings traded Paul Coffey midway through the 1992-93 season because they knew Blake could be their No. 1 defenseman. He paired with Alexei Zhitnik to play against every top player in the playoffs, including Hall of Fame forwards Joe Nieuwendyk of the Calgary Flames, Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks and Doug Gilmour of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"His career took off from there," Robitaille said.
The summer after the Cup Final is when Blake started to realize he was becoming famous. He would go home to work on his family's farm in Simcoe, Ontario, and he'd run into farmers who remembered his games against the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs.
"People knew my team and knew me when they saw me walking around," Blake said. "I remember taking a load of grain that my brother had me take in, there were four or five trucks backed up, and a couple of the old farmers get out and they're like, 'Oh, I saw you playing in those games against Toronto.' Then you start realizing you're kind of getting up to that level."
Blake became the best defenseman in the NHL five years later, when he won the Norris Trophy after putting up 50 points in 81 games. He remains the only member of the Kings to win the Norris Trophy.
Three years after that a contract dispute led him to be traded to the Avalanche, where he joined fellow Hall of Fame members Patrick Roy, Raymond Bourque, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg (Class of 2014 with Blake) in leading the team to its second Stanley Cup championship.
Colorado had to go through Los Angeles to win. Blake will never forget it.
"We're up 3-1 and all of a sudden we're going to Game 7," Blake said. "It was the worst-case scenario because I had finally got to a spot where I had a chance to win the Cup, and now we're going to lose to the team I just came from after 13 years? I remember that Game 7. I think it was a very pivotal time in my career.
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"That was hard coming back [to L.A.], getting booed every time you touch the puck. That stuff helps shape your career, but it was difficult."
Retiring wasn't as difficult for Blake, though it came nine years later after a return stint with the Kings, when he was 41 years old and had played 1,416 games (regular season and playoffs).
He had just finished his second season with the San Jose Sharks, who lost in four straight to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
"Easy because I knew I was done," Blake said. "I knew around Christmas time. I came home after a long trip, the kids are at home and everything started to drag. I was a little more sore. I wasn't doing the things I wanted to do on the ice and I thought I had the opportunity to do them."
The Sharks would have taken him back. He was their captain, the ideal conduit between coach Todd McLellan and the dressing room.
"I still remember the night in Chicago after we lost, his head was hanging, and I went by and said, 'Make sure you think about it,'" McLellan said. "I knew what he was thinking. He just said, 'No, it's time.' I wanted him to play again, but I could tell by his body language sitting in that stall in Chicago that it was time."
McLellan called it an honor to coach Blake. He compared his personal skills, professionalism and preparation to those of former Detroit Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom. McLellan coached Lidstrom for three seasons (2005-08) as a member of Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit. He inherited Blake when he got to San Jose in 2008.
"When I think of Rob Blake I think of the person and the family and then the player, so that tells you a lot about the quality of individual that he is," McLellan said. "He made our job easier."
He rarely did for Melrose, who pushed, prodded and did whatever he could to convince Blake that he could be great, that he could be among the best.
Blake finally got it. He's going to the Hall of Fame. It took a seat on a milk crate to help convince him he could get there.
"The guy had everything," Melrose said. "He had the size, skating ability, shot, big open-ice hitter. That period, from '93 on, you look around the NHL and there weren't many defensemen better than Rob Blake."