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Jason Blake excited to be joining the Toronto Maple Leafs

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

After all, it was his first appearance in front of a media throng since snatching a US$20-million, five-year contract from Toronto Maple Leafs GM John Ferguson within hours of becoming a free agent on July 1. He wasn't about to badmouth anybody or anything.

The Leafs are a great team, he said Thursday, ignoring the fact they haven't made the playoffs since 2004.

Toronto is the centre of the hockey universe, he suggested, overlooking the reality that the Leafs haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967.

New teammate Mats Sundin is always at the top of the league in scoring, he said, although the captain has finished among the top 10 only twice in his 11 years in the blue and white and not since 2002.

Former teammate Alexei Yashin is among the top five - the 33-year-old Minnesotan wisely cut himself short before completing his sentence, perhaps remembering that the New York Islanders are paying Yashin $17 million to go away.

The scrum spins aside, Blake is a good pickup for a team that has for too long needed a bona fide goal scorer to skate alongside Sundin. Blake potted 40 for the Isles last season.

The big question is: was that a one-time splurge?

It's a fair question because his previous best was 28, and he's always been known more as a pest than a big-time scorer.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to score 40 goals again but I'm going to do everything I did last year that made that happen," he promised. "Points, goals - that's beside the point.

"I'm here to help the team win and hopefully get in the playoffs."

It's only logical that coach Paul Maurice will, at the very least, audition him on Sundin's flank.

"He's one of the biggest and strongest guys in the league," Blake said. "He's so good in the corners and he's strong on his skates.

"He does it all. He definitely creates room for his linemates. If I get the chance, hopefully I'll complement that."

He slipped in a comment about Sundin being "always at the top of the league in scoring" before adding, "I've never met him but I'm looking forward to it."

Blake will wear No. 55. He wore 5 at the University of North Dakota and with the Los Angeles Kings when he broke into the NHL, but that number was retired on Long Island in honour of Denis Potvin.

He thought about 55 and, when daughter Lauren gave the thumbs up, he put it on, and it's stayed on ever since. Former Leafs who wore 55 were Drake Berehowsky, Danny Markov, Larry Murphy and Ric Jackman.

The NHL guide lists Blake's height as five-foot-10. How tall is he really?

"Six-two," he replied, flashing his sense of humour.

"No, five-nine," he corrected, adding: "Whether you're six-five or five-nine, you've got to find ways to survive. For me, I found a way."

That's by being an aggravator, as he proved as an Islander during a first-round, seven-game playoff series in 2002 won by the Leafs. Now he's one of them, and longtime adversary Darcy Tucker was one of the first to call and welcome him into the fold.

"We couldn't be happier to be a member of the Toronto organization," Blake said on behalf of himself, his wife Sara, and their three children. "We're excited.

"It's a different world as far as hockey and the media but it's going to be great. We're looking forward to it."

It'll be more fulfilling playing in front of a soldout Air Canada Centre than in front of often much smaller crowds on Long Island, he said.

The Leafs "are a great team," he said, adding that "this is one of the toughest places to play in the league."

Toronto had one of the poorest home records in the NHL last season and it was one of the factors that cost the team a playoff berth.

Blake emphathized with Yashin, who hasn't had any takers on the free-agent market since the Isles bought out the last four years of his contract.

"When he got signed by the Islanders, 10 years for $90 million, that was a big price tag to carry around," said Blake. "It didn't matter what he did.

"He'd score a goal and they'd say he should have scored two. I've always had the utmost respect for Alexei. The media and fans, he didn't live up to their expectations. Alexei is a great player. He's a great guy. He became like a brother to me while I was there. I wish him all the best, wherever that is."

The Blakes have found a home, but he wouldn't say in which municipality.

"I'm not telling you. Somewhere in Ontario."

Maybe he feared unwanted attention at his door.

"This is the centre of hockey right here in Toronto and this is what I've wanted all my life. I was fortunate it came true. This is the one place I wanted to play. I'm just fortunate they took a leap of faith on me. We'll go from there and, hopefully, good things will happen."



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