TORONTO – It was 20 years ago this year that defenceman Rob Blake played his first full season in the NHL, with Los Angeles, and after the Kings were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs he flew to Finland and played in his first World Championship. Canada won a silver medal that year, and Blake was on his way to a two-decade career that will surely land him in the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame in due course.
Fast forward to 2011, though, and Blake, now almost a year into retirement, is Canada’s assistant general manager to the World Championship team that will compete in Slovakia at the end of April. He retired only last summer but saw no benefit to a prolonged absence away from the rink and joined the NHL’s hockey operations department as a manager just two months ago.
“I didn’t want to be away from the rink,” he admitted via phone from California on Tuesday. “I missed being around the guys and wanted to stay in the game.”
Blake added to his portfolio in early March when he was named Team Canada’s assistant GM to Dave Nonis, and the two will have the task of selecting the team for the upcoming Worlds.
“We’ve crossed paths over the years, but I hadn’t really met him until about a month ago when we were in early discussions to join Hockey Canada,” Blake said. “But we’re going to be talking a lot more about the players who may or may not be available. We’re lucky because Hockey Canada has a long history in deciding the structure of the team, the coaching staff, those sorts of things.”
The first order of business is just what a fan might think. “We’ve made a projected list grading players A, B, or C, but have a long way to go still because so many teams are still in the playoff race,” he admitted. “Once teams have been mathematically eliminated, we’ll speak to players immediately to let them know we’re interested.”
As for who gets the call, Blake said the goal is to, at the very least, extend an invitation to the best available players, even if they might be in their thirties and not likely to accept. “We’ll extend the invitation to the best, in part out of respect to the player, in part because we know it’s an honour to be invited even if they don’t accept.”
So why would a player choose to accept instead of start summer early? Blake, a veteran of Team Canada, knows the answer readily. “There are two main factors, I think. First, it’s an honour to represent your country. It’s not an opportunity you’re going to get forever, so you should take it while you can. And second, we know we’re giving the players an opportunity to win. For all of them, they’re out of the playoffs, maybe a bit depressed and don’t want to finish the year on a bad note, so they’ll play a little longer for a chance at gold.”
Any player who knows of Blake’s resume will have trouble saying no to him. After all, Blake played at three Olympics (one gold), five World Championships (winning two gold medals), and one World Cup. Few were the times he declined to play for his country.
Canada’s World Championship team last year in Germany was young and inexperienced for the most part and finished a disappointing seventh, but that has no bearing on the potential makeup of this year’s team.
“So much depends on the NHL playoffs,” Blake pointed out. “Teams that missed last year might be in this year, and vice versa, so there will probably be a lot of different players just because of that. But overall, the NHL has gotten more youthful.”
For now, Blake is in a holding pattern to see what players become available, but he’s also waiting to see what coaches are available before being able to decide who will be behind the bench. He acknowledges the coach will certainly be from the NHL, and that person will also factor in heavily in the selection process.
Although Blake wasn’t named to Canada’s team for the 2010 Olympics, he was in Vancouver all the same for the historic and inaugural Triple Gold Club ceremonies. One of 22 members at the time who have won the Stanley Cup and gold at both the Olympics and World Championships, Blake was among rare company the night of the honour, mingling with former Colorado captain and Cup teammate in 2001, Joe Sakic, 2002 Olympics teammate, Brendan Shanahan, and opponents he hadn’t known too well such as Nicklas Lidström.
“It was an honour to be in that group and it was a special night,” Blake recalled. “The wins are so different. With the Olympics, they’re played only four years and how often do you get named to that team? The Cup playoffs are every year, so you have a much better chance to win, but you have to play two months, not two weeks to win, so it’s a much more gruelling event.”
And now Blake is using his experience on ice, and his well-respected name, to try to choose a Team Canada for 2011 that will have a chance at another World Championship gold. He’s going to have a lot of work to do in short order, but if anyone can make a quick leap from the ice to the front office, it’s Blake.