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Sharks' Blake not showing any signs of age

by Roger Phillips
It's hard to imagine that it's been nearly two decades since a gangly 20-year-old defenseman arrived at a Los Angeles Kings practice late in the 1989-90 season.

There were only 21 teams at the time, and the NHL's conferences and divisions were named after royalty -- hockey and otherwise.

The Kings, Wayne Gretzky and the crew, practiced at a public skating rink in Culver City. The ceiling in their musty dressing room barely was tall enough for the players to stand up straight.

One day just before the 1990 playoffs began, Rob Blake was delivered to the rink by General Manager Rogie Vachon and introduced to a few reporters who were watching practice.

"I remember that like it was yesterday," Blake said of his introduction to the NHL.

Nearly 20 years have passed since then, and the NHL is a much different place. But Blake is still a force. He is preparing for his second season with the San Jose Sharks, a team that didn't exist when Blake arrived as the 70th pick in the 1988 Entry Draft, a team that practices in its own state-of-the-art facility, not at a public ice rink.

And though Blake, who was named captain of the Sharks on Wednesday, will turn 40 on Dec. 10, it doesn't sound as if he plans to hang up his skates any time soon -- though anyone expecting him to stick around as long as his buddy Chris Chelios might be disappointed.

"I imagine a few more years, four years," Blake said during a recent break in the Sharks' rigorous practice schedule. "That's barring injury. For me in the summers it's one year at a time.

"I'm never going to put a team on a hook for two or three years and come back after a season, and say, 'You know what, I just can't keep up anymore, it's time to step aside with a year remaining.' It would hurt the team. I'll play it year by year."

For a couple of reasons, Blake probably can stick around as long as he wants. For one, he's long been a workout fanatic, participating during the summers in the intense training sessions for which Chelios is legendary.

Additionally, for whatever physical ability he may have lost due to age -- and judging by how he played last season, he hasn't lost much -- Blake has the smarts that come from a 1,200-game career that includes a trip to the Stanley Cup Final with the Kings in 1993 and a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan is one of those who sees the parallels between Blake and Chelios. And McLellan ought to know, considering the time he spent with Chelios when he was an assistant coach in Detroit.

"There's a lot of characteristics between the two that are similar," McLellan said. "They're both very determined. I don't think there's any quit in either of them. They both take care of themselves immaculately. Their training regimens and the way they look at what they put in their bodies and how they take care of themselves is second to none.

"Everybody in this locker room can learn from either of them. That allows them to play for a long, long time. We're only worried about Rob Blake today and tomorrow. Wherever his career takes him down the road, we'll be there to support him."

The routine expectation that players will be fitness fanatics is only fairly recent in the NHL, Blake said. When he came up, he said many players still viewed training camp as a time to get into shape. But with the growth in salaries and the intense competition for jobs, staying in shape is now a 12-month-a-year job.

Blake said the youngsters coming into the League now are in much better condition and much more knowledgeable about their fitness than he was when he arrived on the scene. Early in this year's training camp, Blake was on the ice with an assistant coach watching his 22-year-old defense partner, Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

"We're doing line rushes and he's going 100 miles an hour," Blake said. "I told the assistant coach, 'Watch how far ahead this kid's gonna be because he's so excited.' That's what you want. You want excitement out of players."

Blake is excited, too. The chance to play on a talented team with a lot of young players is invigorating. Additionally, for an older defenseman to continue to play in the League, it's almost imperative that he be on a strong team, and the Sharks have Stanley Cup visions.

"The biggest thing when you get older in your career is you've got to surround yourself with a good team," he said. "You can get really exposed on a bad team and then people just say you're done, you're old.  Coming to this organization and being around these great players makes it much easier."

General Manager Doug Wilson agreed that being on a struggling team tends to hasten a defenseman's retirement.

"The game comes easier when you're playing with players where you don't have to do as much," Wilson said. "(Blake) is such a smart guy and he's such a professional. Him playing with Vlasic last year, they both helped each other. When a player does that, they can play as long as they want to play, as long as the pilot light still burns and they're healthy."

Blake said he considered retirement a couple of years ago amid the frustration of trying to lead a struggling Kings team through a rebuilding process that only now may be ready to bear fruit.
"I imagine a few more years, four years. That's barring injury. For me in the summers it's one year at a time." - Rob Blake on how many more years he plans to play
Blake is not thinking of retirement anymore, but he also doubts he will play as long as Chelios.

"Forty-seven?" he said. "Maybe not. But I don't feel 39 or 40 years old."

A big reason he keeps on playing, he said, is the support he receives at home. He said his wife, Brandy, has urged him to continue playing even though he is away from her and their two children for two weeks of every month during the season.

"One thing with spouses and girlfriends, they need to understand that hockey doesn't last forever so she kind of lets me do my thing," Blake said. "I've got a chance to go play in San Jose. Great team. We're going to win. (So playing is) not a question at all. I think she understands that 10 or 15 years from now I won't have that opportunity. So let's make the most of it."

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