Rob Blake remembers what it was like to get the call from Hockey Canada to play in the world championship the day after his season with the Los Angeles Kings ended.
Blake donned the red-and-white Maple Leaf five times at the tournament over his career, winning gold twice. This spring he’ll be making those calls as Canada’s general manager for the world championship that takes place in May in Minsk, Belarus.
Because it’s an Olympic year, Blake and his staff—Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers, Brad Treliving of the Phoenix Coyotes and Brad Pascall of Hockey Canada—might have some different challenges convincing players to commit. But the 44-year-old Kings assistant GM knows what to sell.
“I can’t stress how important the opportunity to win is,” Blake said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I convey to them what the world championships is all about. … You look at your career and it goes by pretty fast. There’s not a lot of opportunities you have to win something.”
Blake represented Canada at the world championship in 1998, months after playing in the Nagano Olympics.
“Being in that position and having won a couple of those tournaments, you can relate those stories to (potential players),” Blake said.
Canada, like many other teams at the world championship, is expected to have a young roster in Minsk because it’s an Olympic year. Not only does that likely rule out the players who won gold in Sochi (Corey Perry was the only 2010 Olympian to play at the worlds), but Treliving said there are other complications.
“It’s a little bit unique in the sense not only from an Olympic year and the guys that went over and played, but even from the NHL schedule and the compactness of the NHL schedule, for everybody, including those who didn’t go over and play,” he said in a phone interview.
Four years ago, Canada’s group at the world championships included 18-year-old Evander Kane, 19-year-olds Matt Duchene and John Tavares and 20-year-old Steven Stamkos. Expect similar youth this time around.
“I think it’s going to be very similar to the teams in the past,” Blake said. “The young guys are the ones that make an easy commitment. They don’t have the family commitment, the kids commitment and different things that as you get older you might have involved in this type of decision. I think, typically, younger guys are the ones and then you surround them with the right veterans and you can have some success.”
One thing Blake, Hextall and Treliving have in common is they’re all general managers of their organization’s AHL affiliate, giving them some experience with younger players.
Blake is in his first season as Kings assistant GM, replacing Hextall, who took the same job in Philadelphia. Treliving is in his seventh season as the Coyotes’ assistant GM.
“Blakey’s been around the game a long time,” Hextall said. “He’s a very patient guy, he’s methodical and he’s very sharp. I know he had a hand in a world championship team in the past, so I’m sure that little bit of experience helps him.”
Along with Pascall, Hockey Canada’s vice president of hockey operations and national teams, those men will have conference calls over the next few weeks to discuss putting together a coaching staff and then a projected roster. That process has already begun.
“I think you’ve got to look at teams that are not likely to make the playoffs and see what’s available and at least get your mind going and start thinking about line combinations and checkers and energy guys and scorers,” Hextall said in a phone interview. “It’s never too early to start thinking.”
The immediate next step for the management team is to zero in on coaches. Ralph Krueger, who served as a coaching consultant in Sochi, and Kevin Dineen, who coached the women’s team to gold and will be behind the bench for the men’s under-18 world championships next month, have been speculated as possible options.
Either would fit with what Blake said in general terms he’s looking for.
“I think part of that staff should have some experience overseas, whether it be coaching over there, coaching an international tournament at some time or being involved on a staff,” he said. “It’s a different tournament, it’s not the same as over here. I think some of that experience in scheduling wise, knowing some of the teams and tendencies of those countries and obviously with the setup and that all being different than North America, it’s nice to have somebody with some experience on that.”
Part of this tournament is getting experience, for the players, coaches and members of the management staff. Blake, Hextall and Treliving are all legitimate candidates for head GM jobs in the not-too-distant future.
Experience already gained in NHL front offices is key now.
“I think you learn, it’s one thing to build a team over a long haul and what you have to do is use everything you’ve learned over the long haul to try and put a team together for the short term,” said Hextall, who played in the 1987 Canada Cup and the 1992 world championship. “I think it’s more lessons I’ve learned from NHL experience that I’ll be able to lend a hand in trying to help Blake and Brad build this team.”
Getting this job also raises the possibility that Blake could be GM of Team Canada at the 2018 Olympics, if NHL players participate. Steve Yzerman has already said it’s time for someone else to fill that role after winning back-to-back gold medals.
“That’s a long ways down the line,” Blake said.
This tournament is not a long ways down the line, as Canada opens play May 9 against France. Blake already has some preliminary lists of potential players and will go through the process in the next few weeks of scouting and evaluating for those spots.
He’ll get some help in that regard not only from Hextall, Treliving and Pascall, but former NHL defenceman Steve Staios, who is the team’s director of player development. Staios is then expected to assist the coaching staff on and off the ice in Minsk, perhaps similar to what Krueger’s job was in the Olympics.
Everything worked for Canada there, and even though the worlds in an Olympic year tend to be something of an afterthought, they’re far from that for those in charge of trying to win gold.
“Any time you go and compete as Team Canada, the expectation is to win,” Treliving said. “Obviously that’s the expectation, that’s the challenge for us and the goal for us putting this team together.”
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