TORONTO - Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Blake woke up Tuesday morning with his head clearer than it's been in a while.
Breaking the news of his cancer to his teammates and the public Monday ended a stressful stretch that began when a blood test during a pre-season physical suggested something wasn't quite right.
Since then, he's had to wrap his mind around the diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia - a highly treatable and rare form of the disease - come to terms with what it meant to his life, his family and his career, and find a way to move forward.
The announcement Monday, Tuesday's pre-game skate and his inclusion in the lineup that was to face the Carolina Hurricanes in the evening were steps toward a return to normalcy for the 34-year-old married father of two.
"There is a lot of pressure that's been lifted," Blake told a large throng of reporters after practice, sweat still dripping from his brow. "There was two weeks there I kind of knew but there was still a little uncertainty. Now that I know, now that obviously everyone knows, I think there is a little bit of a weight lifted.
"I haven't been myself, just for the fact of what's been going on. Now that I know everything is going to be fine, I can move on and yeah, I'm ready to go."
Blake will take oral medication each day to counter the disease and the word from his doctors is that the treatment shouldn't hamper him on the ice. After a brisk skate Tuesday morning, Blake promised to remain the speedy pest he's always been.
"This is not going to affect the way I play," he said. "I'm still going to be the little agitator that I am. And you know what? Things in life are handed to each person and each person deals with them accordingly. This is something I've got to deal with and this is something (where) everything is going to be fine."
Blake received a roar of support from the Air Canada Centre crowd Tuesday night when his name was announced as part of Toronto's starting lineup, but the rest of his evening was forgettable as the Leafs were hammered 7-1 by the Hurricanes.
Blake doesn't want any special treatment and he didn't get any after the game from head coach Paul Maurice, who was blunt in his assessment of the forward's performance.
"I thought he played like everyone else," Maurice said. "For me, nothing's changed in terms of
lineup. I haven't treated him any differently than Day 1 of training camp and that won't change."
Blake was not available for comment after the game.
The Hurricanes said before the game that they were not going to take it easy on Blake.
"You have to play him the same way," said Hurricanes winger Cory Stillman. "I think out of respect he'd want you to play hard against him, too."
Even head coach Peter Laviolette, who coached Blake for two seasons with the New York Islanders and met with him Monday to talk things over, said all sympathies would go out the window once the puck is dropped.
"Jason Blake is a good hockey player and if you're talking about on the ice, you're talking about business and I would expect our guys would play him hard and play him tough," he said. "I know Jason personally and I know he's going to play us hard and play us tough."
Blake's teammates, meanwhile, continued to rally around him Tuesday. With the initial shock of his announcement Monday and the marvel that he'll be able to keep playing behind them, they also sought to bring things back to normal.
"Any time you hear that word (cancer) panic sets in, your mind starts racing but he was composed," said winger Darcy Tucker. "We had our doctor explain it to all the guys and understand that he was going to be continuing down a good path as long as he kept up with his medication, and we're all thrilled he's able to do that."
Defenceman Bryan McCabe agreed.
"I think it brings guys closer," said McCabe. "We've got to back each other up and help each other through thick and thin and obviously this is a tough time for Blakey. We're all there for him and hopefully we can all pull through it together."
Blake, for his part, just wants to get on with his life and the season.
"I'm going to go about my everyday business and I'm not going to let this bring me down," said Blake. "I feel in my heart that I'm a strong person and I wouldn't have gotten where I'm at today if it wasn't for the determination to get where I want to go. This is just another hurdle and we're going to be fine, move on and hopefully do good things this year."