LOS ANGELES - Los Angeles was another world to Rob Blake where he grew up about 2,400 miles away. He was a Toronto-area raised farm boy, and his life revolved around machinery and watching Wayne Gretzky.
That changed profoundly within three months in the summer of 1988. Blake was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings, and three months later he was a sophomore at Bowling Green when he and then teammate Nelson Emerson were sitting in their dorm room watching television. Gretzky had been traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings.
To look back at it seems just as jarring to Blake.
"The chances of watching an L.A. Kings game, at the time, when I was young, was very slim," Blake said. "Being drafted by L.A. was so far away from where I was. I had never had any communication with them before the draft. Nothing. It was more a little element of surprise and it takes you back. The furthest possible team that I could [go to]. And then all the hype started after that with the Gretzky trade."
Rob Blake's No. 4 will hang from the rafters next to Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille
, Marcel Dionne
, Rogie Vachon and Dave Taylor. (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NHLI)
More than 25 years later, Blake is humbled and at peace with his Kings legacy that began that summer and figuratively concludes Saturday when he becomes the first defenseman in franchise history to have his jersey retired at Staples Center. The kid from Simcoe, Ontario, will have his No. 4 hang next to Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, Marcel Dionne, Rogie Vachon and Dave Taylor.
"I think [the word] honor is one of the first things that come to mind," Blake said. "The other is fortunate. I think I was fortunate to play with great players from day one. If you look at some of them now: Luc and Dave are both up there; a few Hall of Famers in Larry [Robinson] and Gretzky and all these guys that are also there. So fortunately [I was] able to learn and be surrounded by great players, on and off the ice. It helps shape your career going forward."
It's been a celebratory winter for Blake, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in November. This latest honor speaks to his place in Kings history as the franchise's all-time leading scorer among defensemen, their only Norris Trophy winner and owner of a hip check that reverberates to the current generation.
"He was pretty deadly with that sucker, I've heard," Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin said.
It's difficult to detail Blake's Kings career without mentioning his departure in 2001. Blake was set to become an unrestricted free agent and reportedly was pushed to ask for market value. The Kings couldn't afford to keep him, and Blake was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, with whom he won the Stanley Cup. The divorce angered some Kings fans.
"It was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my career," Blake said. "Sometimes decisions are made either way and you live with them whether you like them or not. It wasn't easy by any means. It was never easy coming back in here with another jersey on, for sure."
Blake, who returned to play two seasons for the Kings in 2006-08, acknowledged the ceremony helps bring closure to that chapter.
"It's to the point where I want it to get to," he said. "It definitely wasn't the smoothest road, for sure. But it is where I ended up wanting to get to from an early stage … my idea was to become an NHL player for one team and play the whole time through. Realistically, it's very difficult to do. But now, to have the kind of fulfillment on this weekend, kind of relays what I wanted to do when I got here, even though it was farfetched at the time."
Many fans relate Blake to the Kings' run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993, when they turned Los Angeles into a hockey town. Kings defenseman Drew Doughty was young but he was impacted by Blake.
"I liked that he was good both ways," Doughty said. "He had that big hip check that I kind of do as well. He was good defensively, then he put up a lot of points offensively. He won a Stanley Cup. He won a gold medal. He won a Norris. I still want to win that Norris. That's something I'll have to talk to him about."
Doughty only has to walk upstairs at their practice facility to chat. A lot of his teammates also use Blake as a sounding board because the 45-year-old is the Kings assistant general manager. Blake's door is always open.
"Me and [Doughty] went up earlier this year," Muzzin said. "He had nothing but positive things. It's nice to talk to a guy like that who's been through it and seen it and can kind of judge where we are and understand what we're going through."
Blake is responsible for player contracts, evaluation and the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, but those afternoon talks seem to give him the most enjoyment. Most of the time, it's not about hockey.
"For me, that's the best part of the day is after practice when some of these guys stop by," Blake said.
About 40 former teammates are expected to attend the ceremony, although Gretzky cannot make it, a Kings official said. Blake will have his family: wife, Brandy; sons Jack, 13, Max, 2, and daughter, Brooke, 12. Blake is apprehensive about Max though, after he brought him to the Hall of Fame reception.
"He wanted to just grab the microphone and scream," Blake said. "I heard glasses break."
Blake thinks Max will be fine Saturday.
"I figure it's a big ice surface," he said. "I can just let him go."