VANCOUVER – Rob Blake has never been to Belarus, but as a six-time World Championship participant, Team Canada’s 2014 GM certainly knows his way around this tourney.
Now an assistant GM with the Los Angeles Kings, the 44-year-old played 20 years in the NHL as an elite defenceman. He won the 2001 Stanley Cup with Colorado and the 2002 Olympics, as well as the 1998 Norris Trophy. But before those accomplishments, he twice captured World Championship gold with Canada, in Italy 1994 and Finland 1997.
“I’ve had past histories with Bob Nicholson and Brad Pascall of Hockey Canada, so they approached me a couple of weeks ago about helping put that team together,” Blake told IIHF.com at the Kings’s game in Vancouver on Saturday. “Obviously, I’ve been involved in the past with Hockey Canada, and I’ve enjoyed those opportunities.”
The three-time Olympian cautioned that Canada’s dominance in winning its second straight Olympic gold in Sochi in February won’t necessarily mean more of the same in Minsk: “I don’t know if we can carry anything over from there, other than the fact that there are a lot of players in Canada that can come to these events. Basically, it’s going to be a young team, and you’re hoping to keep that same excitement.”
The plan is to have a coach in place no later than the end of the NHL regular season on April 13. For player selection, Blake is working closely with his staff, which includes Pascall, Phoenix Coyotes assistant GM Brad Treliving, and Philadelphia Flyers assistant GM Ron Hextall.
“We have conference calls every other day, and we basically go over the list, narrowing it down,” said Blake, who’s also gotten pointers from his boss, Kings GM Dean Lombardi. “We’ve started identifying some priority-type players. When their teams are eliminated, we approach them and get their feelings toward it.”
While some players struggle to adapt when they go into management, Blake sees it as a natural progression for him.
“I think as a player for 20 years, all you did was rate players,” Blake said. “You had to know who you were playing against and how they played, their tendencies. It’s no different at this level.”
In his fourth NHL season, Blake fell just short of winning the Stanley Cup when his Kings, led by a superstar with Belarusian heritage in Wayne Gretzky, lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 final. But in 1994, Blake celebrated Canada’s first IIHF World Championship title in 33 years with a 2-1 final victory over Finland.
“Breaking the drought was talked about a lot,” Blake recalled. “The Trail Smoke Eaters had won years before that [in 1961]. It was decided in a shootout too, which was a little different from how we play over here in North America. You see the guys from that team 15 or 20 years later, and you still have some memories.”
What made Blake decide to play at the Worlds six times? He didn’t shy away from the chance in May 1998 in Switzerland, even just after finishing fourth at his first Olympics in Nagano.
“It gives you an opportunity to win,” said Blake. “That’s the thing I stress mostly to these players. For the most part, your teams are out of the playoffs or have been eliminated. This is another opportunity to go win something. You play for your country. You get good exposure, good experience with other players and other management and coaches. You get new ideas.”
Blake makes an excellent point. And statistics bear out the true value of donning the red Maple Leaf at this tournament
In the last 20 years, Canada has won the World Championship five times (1994, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2007). There have been 45 players who suited up for those gold medal teams and never went on to win either an Olympics or Stanley Cup. Eight are still active NHLers, while four others were still playing in Europe this year. It is unlikely that any of them will be selected to play in the 2018 Olympics.
The list includes many prominent NHLers with long pro careers such as Steve Thomas, Sean Burke, Keith Primeau, Daniel Briere, Derek Morris, Dion Phaneuf, Craig Rivet, Mike Cammalleri, Derek Morris, Brendan Morrison, Bryan McCabe, and Don Sweeney.
The bottom line is that when a Canadian player accepts an invitation to the World Championship (and this is even more true for Canadians than other nationalities, due to their greater depth), he might well be saying yes to his only chance to win something in his post-junior years.
Blake, who joined Joe Sakic and Brendan Shanahan as one of the first three Canadian Triple Gold Club members in Salt Lake City 2002, was clearly blessed in his career.
Once touted as the game’s best hip-checker, the Simcoe, Ontario native now points to another King – a two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Cup winner – as the top practitioner.
“I get to watch Drew Doughty quite a bit,” Blake said. “He’s a pretty good hip-checker. He knows how to do it. His timing’s good. I don’t know if it’s a lost art. I think the speed in the neutral zone right now is much more than when I played, with the hooking and holding. So your timing has to be even better.”
And a former King constitutes Blake’s closest connection to Belarus. Between 1995-96 and 1999-2000, Vladimir Tsyplakov was his teammate in Los Angeles. The 2002 Olympian and four-time World Championship participant scored 170 points in 331 career NHL games.
“He was a good player,” said Blake. “Good team guy, nice to have around. He competed. I spent a few years with him, and it’s different for guys like that. They’ve got to come over here and make the transition to North American hockey.”
Now the world will be watching to see if Rob Blake can successfully make the transition to Minsk and become the first Canadian GM ever to win World Championship gold in the same year as his nation captured Olympic gold.