Rob Blake dreamed of this day long ago, of seeing the Kings retire his jersey at the end of a long and successful career. That much will happen as he envisioned it, when his jersey joins those of Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille in the rafters at Staples Center on Saturday.
The part about the distinguished career came true too. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, a richly deserved reward for 20 seasons of dishing out bone-rattling hip checks and unleashing booming slap shots. He was a seven-time All-Star on defense, the Kings' only Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's top defenseman, and a 2002 Olympic gold medalist.
But not every aspect of Blake's vision came to pass. He thought he'd always play for the team that took a chance on a gangly kid in the fourth round of the 1988 entry draft, but his path led him away from the Kings and to a Stanley Cup triumph with Colorado before he returned as a player, left again, and came back in 2013 to be the club's assistant general manager.
He always imagined lifting the Cup as a member of the Kings. It didn't happen that way.
"That's one thing you always want to accomplish," he said. "Would I love to do it here? Yeah. And that's what I set out to do. I didn't earn that. I didn't do the right things. Not to be in the situation to be able to win it here was tough, but if it happens that way, I'll take it wherever."
His refusal to accept an ultimatum from the then-frugal Kings before he could become a free agent for the first time led to a trade to Colorado in 2001. Some fans still hold a grudge and don't understand why he wouldn't stay or how firmly his heart was entrenched here. He has a sense of, if not regret, not having kept a promise.
"My job when I came here, drafted, was to win a Cup as a player. And didn't succeed in that order, obviously," he said.
Yet, he didn't fail. His path simply didn't take a straight line.
"To have this kind of fulfillment on this weekend," he said, "kind of relays what I wanted to do when I got here, even though it was far-fetched at the time or a stretch I never thought I could get to."
The important point is his jersey belongs alongside the franchise's best. Leaving the Kings, he said, "was the toughest thing I ever had to do in my career."
He added, "Sometimes decisions are made either way and you live with them whether you like them or not. It wasn't easy by any means. It wasn't easy coming back in here with another jersey on for sure. Would I change things? I don't know what I would ever do again. But definitely the most difficult time in my career."
Some fans haven't forgiven him for offering to give up the captaincy, rejecting his explanation that he did it so the team could move forward with a new leader after management said he would be traded before the end of the 2000-01 season. He never played a game without the "C," but that, like the climate at the time, has largely been forgotten. His teammates and friends remember.
"Everybody should always know the whole story behind it," said Robitaille, who also won the Cup after leaving Los Angeles, triumphing with Detroit in 2002. "I think at the time the Kings' organization probably mishandled things. I know there was a letter sent and negotiations can be so hard. The night he got traded we were all together and he was in tears, so obviously he didn't want to go. We were part of something special. We were together."
And now their retired jerseys will be displayed together.
"All of us who played with him know this is something special, something he's earned, because of the way he was for us in the room and what he represented to us," Robitaille said. "What this guy's done for this organization, what he's given at the time as a player but more importantly what he's done off the ice is incredible…. He's just one of those special people."
Nelson Emerson, the Kings' director of player development, has known Blake since they were teenagers in neighboring Canadian towns, Emerson in Waterford and Blake in Simcoe. Blake, two years younger, followed Emerson to Bowling Green, where they cemented an enduring friendship.
Before they report to the Kings' El Segundo offices they usually can be found in the South Bay surfing with former teammate Glen Murray. The friendship has continued to a second generation: Blake's oldest son, Jack, plays on the Junior Kings with Emerson's sons, Quinn and Blake.
"It's been remarkable to watch his career, right from Bowling Green. It was probably his sophomore season, halfway through college, that things really started to click for him and he started to figure out how to use his body," Emerson said. "He started to grow into his body and you really saw then, holy smokes, this is going to be a special player.
"There's so much he's done — the gold medals and Stanley Cups. To get your jersey retired in any organization in the NHL, not many guys have done it. That just shows you what a mark he's put on not only the L.A. Kings but hockey in general."
Blake is making his mark in a different way now. Among his duties as Dean Lombardi's assistant is being a liaison to players, and Blake enjoys having them drop into his office after practice to talk about hockey or anything else. Blake also oversees operations of the Kings' Manchester (N.H.) farm team.
His name is on the Cup for his management role last season, though he downplayed his part. "They had everything set up in place," he said.
On Saturday, surrounded by friends, family and about 35 former Kings, everything will be in place for Blake, as he once dreamed.