BERNE – The last time Jason Blake played for Team USA at an IIHF World Championship, George Bush and Vladimir Putin had just taken office, the Backstreet Boys ruled the pop charts, and Sydney, Australia was preparing to host the Olympics.
Yes, things have changed a lot since the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg, Russia. But for the shifty Toronto Maple Leafs winger, making his second career appearance at this tournament in red, white, and blue was a natural fit this year.
“It's always a great opportunity to represent your country on the world stage,” Blake told IIHF.com after the USA practiced at Berne's PostFinance Arena on Friday. “The World Championships come right after a long, gruelling NHL season, and you get about a week or a week and a half off. It's hard to motivate yourself to play again. But for me, with the coach and general manager of Team USA both coming from the Toronto Maple Leafs [Ron Wilson and Brian Burke], it gave me some extra incentive. It's good to be here, and I'm excited.”
With 25 goals and 38 assists for Toronto this season, Blake enjoyed his second-best NHL campaign ever, even though the Leafs missed the playoffs with a twelfth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. In fact, the 177-cm, 82-kg veteran was the fourth-highest American scorer in the NHL, trailing only Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, and Jamie Langenbrunner.
Blake represented the USA at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, going pointless in six games. Was his decision to suit up in Switzerland partly motivated by hopes of playing in the Olympics again in 2010?
“I'd be lying if I said it wasn't,” Blake admitted. “Looking ahead to next year, with the Olympics coming up in Vancouver, this is a way to get back in the door with USA Hockey. After all, it's been almost four years since I played in Turin.”
With three seasons left on the five-year, $20-million US deal Blake signed with the Leafs in 2007, it's worthwhile for him to continue trying to impress Ron Wilson. And even though building a successful World Championship team in a few weeks is a far different challenge from maintaining an NHL club through 82 games, Blake doesn't think Wilson needs to make any big changes.
“Overall, Ron is going to approach everything the same way here, I'm sure,” Blake said. “He's been a winner everywhere he's gone. It's important for him to just coach the way he knows best. He's got some new faces in terms of assistants, like Scott Gordon from the New York Islanders, who's also a head coach in the NHL. But it's a good mix.”
And Blake insists there are no hard feelings about his clashes with Wilson early in 2008-09. Wilson made Blake a healthy scratch in November when the winger's production had fallen off badly. But Blake rediscovered his game in December, putting up 10 points.
“I think as a coach, the number one thing you do is try to maximize the potential of each player,” said Blake. “That's all he was trying to do to me at the beginning of the year. I played for him before at the World Cup in 2004, and with the Leafs, he just wants me to be the best player I could be.”
During the USA practice, Wilson was overheard calling out instructions to his players about IIHF rules and added: “Blakey, with the spinnerama move, if you bump into the goalie, it's no goal.” The allusion was to an eye-catching shootout winner Blake scored against Scott Clemmensen of the New Jersey Devils on December 16, which the Devils questioned afterwards due to some contact with the goalie.
In Switzerland, Blake is the oldest member of Team USA at age 35 and will be expected to provide leadership, both offensively and as the voice of experience. Yet when the former University of North Dakota star went to Russia nine years ago, his role was more to provide energy as a relentless skater.
“As a young kid, I was just excited to play, and it was pretty much my first opportunity,” recalled Blake, who had just completed his first full NHL season with the Los Angeles Kings in 2000. “Going to Russia was a great experience, and I got to play with some good players. What I remember the most was beating Russia 3-0, and one of our goalies for this year, Robert Esche, was actually in goal that night. The Russians had put together an all-star team that year, so it was special to beat them, and their fans weren't too happy.”
As for Switzerland, it's not Blake's first visit to the land of cheese and cuckoo clocks. He suited up briefly for Lugano during the last NHL lockout, scoring two goals and two assists.
“I came over here in December 2004 and was only over here for seven games,” Blake said. “I was hoping that the NHL season was going to start, and it didn't. So I just went back home. But Switzerland is a great place. Lugano's one of the prettiest cities I've ever been to. I just got into Berne yesterday, but the people have been very welcoming.”
This time, the native of Moorhead, Minnesota is hoping to stick around until May 10, as Team USA guns for its first gold medal at an IIHF World Championship since 1933.
“Our goal is to come in here do and as well as we can, win the thing,” Blake said. “Every game we've got to show up and work hard. Every team here is going to be a tough opponent. We've just got to make sure we're ready.”