Column: Rob Blake’s jersey retirement ceremony is fit for a King
The ceremony the Kings staged to retire Rob Blake’s jersey was very much like Blake himself: unpretentious, mostly understated but illuminated by genuine emotion that hit home as hard as any punch to the gut.
The emotional jolts Saturday weren’t as obvious as the thunderous hip checks that became Blake’s trademark, one of many facets of an outstanding two-way game that earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year.
The most affecting moments during the 35-minute ceremony were the respect that made Dustin Brown’s voice quiver as he praised Blake for teaching a bunch of players how to be a real team and begin the transformation of the Kings from wannabes to winners, and the passion displayed by General Manager Dean Lombardi for the man he called “one of our greatest Kings,” who passed every possible test of athletic greatness.
Blake put his own distinct mark on the occasion when he invited his longtime defense partner, Mattias Norstrom, to join him and his family in raising Blake’s No. 4 high above the ice at Staples Center. “That was probably the one guy that I played the most with throughout the career here. I thought it was just kind of fitting or appropriate to have him there beside me too,” Blake said.
That was the innate generosity of the farmboy from Simcoe, Canada, the team player, coming out as surely as it always does.
“I kind of look at it as the last shift No. 4 will take,” Blake said before the banner with his number was raised and bathed in a white spotlight.
And how much could the Kings use someone like Blake and Norstrom to bolster a defense that has been rocked by injuries and the suspension of Slava Voynov? The Kings would be favored to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, not merely scrambling for a wild-card playoff spot.
If the Ducks’ extravagant retirement of Teemu Selanne’s jersey last Sunday fit Selanne’s outgoing, embrace-the-world personality, Saturday’s ceremony fit Blake’s natural reserved manner. The Kings, urged by the NHL to keep the festivities brisk, pulled off an event that was swift but meaningful, touching on the important aspects of his life and career.
Luc Robitaille, one of the five players whose jerseys were previously retired by the Kings, spoke at the ceremony. The other four — Wayne Gretzky, Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon — congratulated Blake via videotaped messages. So did Tony Granato, Joe Sakic — Blake’s teammate on the 2001 Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche — Brendan Shanahan and Ian Laperriere.
Those on the ice touched on the common theme of Blake’s dedication and talent, his heavy impact on the game and light touch off the ice. Brown, who succeeded Blake as captain in 2008 after Blake’s second stint with the Kings, couldn’t keep his voice steady during his tribute.
“You were my captain,” Brown said. “We weren’t a very good team at that time, but you instilled in players like [Anze] Kopitar and myself what it meant to be a pro and showed us what it meant to be a teammate.”
Brown also said Blake’s influence was “the start of the change of culture for the organization, an organization that now defines success by raising banners,” words worth more than any gift the Kings could have presented.
Brown’s obvious emotion was a happy surprise for Blake. “It’s great, because that is what we were trying to do. You leave impressions on these guys,” said Blake, who addressed the current team at a dinner Friday night. “I said to these guys, the impression that they’re leaving on the next generation, it’s the same thing.”
Standing on the ice in front of about 30 former players, Lombardi spoke forcefully about Blake, whom he hired as his assistant in the summer of 2013. Blake passed Lombardi’s employment test with his talent, work ethic, and the reputation he earned on the ice and off.
“I’ve been in this business 25 years, and I can assure you there are few athletes as universally respected as Rob Blake,” Lombardi said. “This organization is fortunate to have Rob Blake in his present role.”
Norstrom, visiting from Sweden for the occasion, paraphrased a favorite quote. “Some people dream of success. Others wake up and work hard at it,” Norstrom said. “For me, that’s Rob Blake.”
Blake is many things to many people. To some fans he’s still a traitor because he wouldn’t sign a new contract at below market value before he could reach free agency in 2001. The Kings organization misjudged his resolve and the team’s needs and traded him. Enough water has flowed under that particular bridge and has frozen beneath us all to consign that to the far, dusty corner of history it deserves. Those who long ago closed their minds to him probably weren’t swayed Saturday. That’s their choice but also their loss.
In the meantime, moments after the ceremony ended and he had dropped the puck before the Kings game against the Ducks, Blake was back at work in the executive box. “The best part is you get up and sit with those same guys every night, and we get to talk about the game,” he said.
A game he continues to honor with his involvement.
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