The voice followed King defenseman Rob Blake almost everywhere he skated. On the ice and the bench during games, and all through practice.
Others heard it, too. Rookie defensemen Alexei Zhitnik, 20, and Darryl Sydor, 20, couldn’t get away from it.
It was the raspy voice of Paul Coffey, who, until he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 29, was Blake’s defensive partner. In his days with the Kings, Coffey pushed the three youngsters, cajoling them and constantly exhorting them to play beyond their years. He offered praise and criticism, a one-man tutorial from a future Hall of Fame defenseman.
“He helped me out tremendously,” said Sydor, who scored once and added an assist during Game 1 of the NHL playoffs against Calgary.
“He was unbelievable. Little things in skating certain angles up the ice. Getting away from guys. He taught little tricks like that.”
Said Zhitnik: “Before, when I played in Russia, Coff was the best defenseman in the NHL. Two, three months I played with him. I learned lots from Paul. Great, great skater.”
Blake, 23, gets the brunt of Coach Barry Melrose’s wrath because he is the oldest of the three. Coffey was relentlessly on him as well. When Coffey was traded, he had one more piece of advice for Blake.
“He said it was time for me to step up and become the leader,” Blake said. “He had a lot of the leadership role. Coff was great for the young guys. Even though he got on everybody, he was so intense he didn’t want to make a mistake. He’d come to the bench and say, ‘Hey, sorry about that.’ ”
As it turned out, Blake went on to have his best season with the Kings, scoring 16 goals and 59 points, including 10 power-play goals. After Coffey was traded, Zhitnik and Sydor received added responsibilities with increased ice time and some power-play duty. Zhitnik scored 12 goals and 48 points and Sydor had six goals and 29 points. The steady play of Zhitnik and Sydor is one reason the Kings are leading 1-0, heading into tonight’s Game 2 of the Smythe Division semifinals.
This progress has pleased their former teacher, Coffey. Recently, Coffey spoke to Blake, offering his assessment.
“Darryl made a play and Coff called and said, ‘He’s learning,’ ” Blake said. “He likes to see how we’re doing when he watches our games on TV.”
Sydor has been paired all season with veteran Charlie Huddy, a stabilizing influence. Zhitnik found Game 1 a little difficult, playing without Blake, who has been out of the lineup since April 3 because of a lower-back injury. Blake said he will play tonight at Calgary.
Neither Zhitnik nor Sydor appeared nervous during Game 1 on Sunday. Sydor acknowledged some pregame jitters, and Zhitnik noticed them. “I said, ‘Syd, relax, relax,” Zhitnik said. “Maybe Syd be too serious. Before every game, too serious. I can’t be serious like Syd.”
Zhitnik, who played in the 1992 Winter Olympics, displays a poker face in almost every situation. The Kings weren’t surprised when he moved into the playoffs with aplomb.
“Who knows what’s happening with him?” Sydor said. “You’ve got me. Before the game he was not talking. Like usual.”
Said Blake: “You would never notice Alex being nervous. In Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final in double overtime, maybe he’d be a little nervous.”
Sydor has made the biggest leap. Last season, he was a nervous, unsettled 19-year-old in Los Angeles. Blake reported that Sydor was calling his girlfriend four times a day. In 18 games, he scored one goal and had six points but his heart was still with his junior team in Kamloops, British Columbia. The Kings sent him to the Junior World Championships and he finished the season in Kamloops, helping lead the Blazers to the Memorial Cup, the top junior event in Canada.
King assistant coach Cap Raeder watched him last season and wasn’t surprised to see Sydor make a quantum leap.
“Last year he would have made one mistake and he’d be worrying about it and he’d make another one,” Raeder said. “He’s matured. He’s confident, older and stronger. Barry wouldn’t let him be a kid. He said, ‘You can’t accept you’re a rookie. You have to get in here and play.’ ”
Melrose has equal praise for Blake, Sydor and Zhitnik.
"(Sydor) can be great,” Melrose said. “He’s close to being great right now. All those three kids need is experience. Alex and Blake are going to get all the ink because they’re more offensive. Syd will be an all-around defenseman and a leader. I expect so much out of them.”
Said Blake, joking: “They’re playing so well, I hope I can get back in the lineup.”
Barry Melrose couldn’t have been more adamant about Wayne Gretzky playing tonight in Game 2. “He’ll play,” Melrose said, firmly. Gretzky, who suffered a charley horse during the first period of Game 1, said he wants and expects to play. “I felt really good today,” he said of Tuesday’s practice. “I started slowly, but I got stronger and stronger by the end. It would have been tough to play today. The extra day is a blessing in disguise. It worked out for everybody. . . . I don’t remember what happened, but it doesn’t matter how it happened. I had (a charley horse) before, but not as bad as this.”