While many Southern Californians have been unwinding at the beach, enjoying Santa Monica Pier concerts, movies at Hollywood Forever cemetery and lapping up the sun in the suddenly condensed summer schedule following a hockey season that extended to June 8, Rob Blake has been immersing himself in organizational ins and outs since the July 18 announcement that he would be replacing Ron Hextall as the club’s Assistant General Manager.
Hextall, who joined the Philadelphia Flyers organization in a similar capacity three days prior, had spoken with Blake on several occasions to acclimate the former King to the Manchester Monarchs, the club that Blake will serve as General Manager of in addition to his responsibilities with Los Angeles.
“Ron Hextall was really good when he decided to take the job in Philly, and I was looking at this, I met with him a couple times. I went over things to understand their philosophy, and obviously with Dean too,” Blake said. “They like a young team [in Manchester]. It’s all development. That’s what that league is. That’s what that team is, and the more you can turn over – and if you look at the history of the Kings in the last three or four years, those players are all starting to play and contribute in big ways.”
The amount of respect Blake carries amongst the figures he has played with, for and against is characterized in the first two jobs he has taken following the conclusion of his playing career. He held a position under Brendan Shanahan in the Department of Player Safety for three seasons following his retirement as a player. It served as a natural springboard towards his goal of returning to work for a club, one that he acknowledged that “would most likely be in the L.A. area,” where he raises three children and serves alongside good friend Nelson Emerson as pee-wee hockey coaches within the Los Angeles Junior Kings program. He remains Los Angeles’ leader in games played (805), goals (161), assists (333), points (494), power play goals (92), and game-winning goals (29) by a defenseman.
“I guess the older I got I always understood that I wanted to continue in hockey. I felt that more on the management and the building side of things, rather than coaching, maybe. I didn’t know, really, but that’s kind of what I had thought. So right when I retired, I remember there were three or four months, and then Brendan Shanahan called, who I had known before. He said, ‘Listen.’ He goes, ‘I’m opening this new department in the NHL.’ He says, ‘Come and work with me.’ There was no contract signed. There was no obligation to have to stay there or anything. But it was more an understanding of what we had known over 20 years. He wanted to develop this department, and he wanted some help doing it. He reached out, and I said ‘Definitely.’ The travel was very limited. I got to spend some time at home and kind of just unwind from playing all those years. It worked out great, but I think in the back of my mind I always wanted to work for a team, someone down the road. And then this kind of came real quick. It was a great opportunity there.”
For Blake, it’s a refreshing and natural extension of his work as a part of Shanahan’s staff – and it brings out the competitiveness inherent in the 1998 Norris Trophy winner.
“I just enjoy working for the team with a common goal. That’s one thing that was a little bit that you don’t have at the league. You watch a game without trying to pick a side. And we watch games to make sure there are no incidents. That’s what we hoped, everything. You didn’t really favor who won one way or another as long as there’s nothing happening. Many get back into the team. When you leave here, all of a sudden, you’re like ‘OK, so what do we have to do to win the Stanley Cup?’ So all of a sudden, the 20 years that I’ve been kind of doing that comes back into the minute you step back in here. So I think that common goal, whether you’re the GM, the assistant, a scout or development – you have that same feeling again.”
This is a player who certainly foresaw a return to the Kings organization.
“I’ve always wanted to do that since I can remember,” Blake said.
That might perk up the ears of a contingent of Los Angeles fans that were not receptive to Blake following the breakdown in contract negotiations in 2001 that precipitated a trade to Colorado. In the 2008 offseason, Blake signed with San Jose, his final destination in a 20-year playing career that saw him debut with the Kings in 1990 following a three-year standout tenure with Bowling Green State University.
“I understand it, and I know that there are some – and even if I sat with them and explained my side, from 15 years ago to today, they might not side with me. So I’m not so worried about that. The thing that I’m more excited (about), is that I’ve had run-ins with Dean. There’s no doubt about that. But when the position came, and he called, it was like OK, now we’re back to getting on with that and going forward. I remember – I was talking to Luc the other day. This is my third time coming back here. But it’s like, I want to be back. And they’ve wanted me to be back. So we’ve had different things happen throughout the career, and you keep moving on from that.”
“Sometimes now, when I look at it, you look at these (organizational depth) boards, and then you look at the salary cap, and you look around, and…throughout your career you see players move or yourself, or other players that you played with, and you question why they’re moving. A lot of it has to do with the way teams have to be structured. And it’s a business. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a personal agenda, and that takes a player – I think he can never understand that until he’s done in his career – that it wasn’t personal. When you’re playing, it’s personal. It always has been. But when you step back and you watch – I watched it from the league’s side, and now I’m watching it from the team’s side – it’s rarely personal. It’s business. That’s their job, to win and to give the best possible things they can. You get a different perspective from that. But even knowing that, if I went and started playing today and got traded or got bought out or something, it’s personal. But then you realize that it wasn’t. But when you’re playing, you’ll never understand that.”
The management perspective is one that he practiced – in jest, slightly – during his time as a King.
“We used to practice here, go down after, and guys would hang out in the steamer or whatever, and we’d go in and pretend that we were GMs running teams. That’s what all the guys talk about,” Blake said. “They’d talk about after their career, how would they do things, or how would they change things, and that. I think that’s always been a part of my thinking.”