Like Ray Bourque with Boston, Wendel Clark with Toronto and Trevor Linden with Vancouver, Blake will always be associated with only one team even though he played elsewhere.
And like Clark and Linden, Blake also returned to where it all started.
“The settings are very familiar to me,” Blake said this week from Los Angeles. “In terms of management, coaches and players, it’s totally different than it was five years ago when I was last playing here. But the buildings and the routine, it became real familiar in a hurry.”
Deep down, Blake also had a feeling he’d come back one day and finish his career as a King. He even kept his home in Manhattan Beach, Calif., despite playing for the Colorado Avalanche the last four-plus seasons. So when he signed with the Kings this summer, he didn’t even need to find a place to live.
“Yes, my wife (Brandy) is from here, we had a lot of connections here,” said the 36-year-old native of Simcoe, Ont., an avid beach volleyball player. “While I went back to Canada for the month of July, the rest of the time I always spent here in the off-season. That transition this summer was fairly simple, moving back full-time in the same house (which he bought in 1989).”
It’s because of his deep-rooted connection to the area and the organization that Blake’s departure to Colorado was so upsetting to Kings fans. They booed him mercilessly every time he touched the puck at the Staples Center while wearing an Avs uniform the last five years.
“It wasn’t very much fun coming in here with an Avalanche jersey on,” said Blake, who helped Colorado knock out the Kings in the second round of the ’01 playoffs. “But it’s been fine this time around. Hopefully a little more success in terms of wins will help in that direction, too.”
Blake was the Kings’ fourth-round pick, 70th overall, in the 1988 NHL entry draft. He cracked the team in 1990-91 and enjoyed tremendous seasons before being traded to Colorado on Feb. 21, 2001, along with Steve Reinprecht in exchange for Aaron Miller, Adam Deadmarsh, Jared Aulin and a first-round draft choice. He won a Stanley Cup with the Avs a few months later and made the playoffs every year in Denver.
Truth be told, he was a little torn as July 1 approached. Yes, he had the Kings in the back of his mind, but he also enjoyed his years in Colorado. The salary cap took care of that.
“With the (salary cap) restrictions, there wasn’t a lot of room in Colorado anymore,” said Blake. “(Avs GM) Francois Giguere was really good about it. He flew out to L.A., we had dinner and talked and understood that our plans weren’t going to be on the same page going forward.
“So then when I had to look at free agency, I sat down with (Kings GM) Dean Lombardi and coach (Marc) Crawford and took a look at the direction and where they wanted to take the team. And the time line they wanted to take. Because I still wanted to be involved in pushing this team to another level.”
He didn’t last long on the open market, signing a US$12-million, two-year contact July 1 with the Kings. He was back home.
“It’s been good,” said Blake. “Obviously we’ve got a little struggle winning games, but as far as everything else surrounding that it’s been a pretty easy move and a good set-up again for me.”
On the ice, the Kings have struggled out of the gate at 4-8-3 but it’s no secret this is a rebuilding year for Los Angeles. The Jack Johnson trade which brought over the highly touted prospect from Carolina in exchange for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger signalled that. While Blake understands that, he also believes he’ll still be around when the Kings are contenders again.
“I also think that in talking to management in the summer, it’s not a five-or six-year process,” said Blake. “It’s something where in the next few years here we want to take steps to go in the right direction and I’ve been pretty comfortable with that.”
Blake, like his team, is off to a bit of a slow start with two goals and two assists in 15 games. But his presence on the team goes far beyond goals and assists. He’s a leader on a young team and a fan favourite that helps sells tickets.
His leadership comes in different ways. Hoping to settle down perennial bad boy Sean Avery this season, the Kings put the winger’s dressing room stall in between Blake and captain Mattias Norstrom. Avery now has guidance and sage advice on either side of him.
“You know what, to be honest, there hasn’t been a thing between Matty and I that we’ve even said to Sean,” said Blake, trying to downplay it. “I think he understood this summer the direction he wanted to take his career in. And he’s been great. It can only come from him, only he can change that. From Day 1 here he’s been very competitive and very good to this whole organization. He’s got a lot to offer as a player and can definitely help this team.”