Half an hour south of Wayne Gretzky’s hometown of Brantford, Waterford product Nelson Emerson grew up one town over from Rob Blake, a Simcoe native. Separated by two years, the two close friends who ascended from small town Ontario to Bowling Green State University and ultimately the National Hockey League never played with or against each other in their minor hockey days. Both ultimately played for the Stratford Cullitons but never had their time with the Junior B program overlap.
“Right around that time when we were both heading off to junior, our final years of midget, we started to connect,” Emerson said.
And so at tomorrow’s jersey retirement ceremony, which will honor the 805 games, 161 goals and 494 points Blake recorded in a Kings uniform as well as his November Hall of Fame induction, Emerson will be among those praising his friend and former collegiate and professional teammate whose jersey will be the first worn by a defenseman to be raised to the rafters at the Kings’ home.
“If you look at a lot of the things he did as a pro, I think a lot of it started from his family and where he grew up,” Emerson said of Blake, who learned to skate on a frozen pond on the family’s farm.
Emerson noted that the skill set he displayed as a teenager did not quite foretell a 20-season NHL career, and that his most rapid growth in the sport came when the two were teammates at Bowling Green, a university 20 minutes south of Toledo in northwestern Ohio.
“He was a lanky, tall, skinny defenseman. He couldn’t find his way really around the ice because he was a little clunky and a little unorthodox,” Emerson said. “He was on a great hockey team. Dwayne Roloson was the goalie for his team growing up. They won everything. But when it all came together, and I can remember this as plain as day, he was a sophomore in Bowling Green and that’s kind of when everything clicked. He started getting stronger instead of being tall and skinny and a little clumsy. Everything started to work for him and it was unbelievable to watch. As a sophomore, just boom. It clicked.”
The rise Emerson referenced was between the 13 points he posted as a freshman in 1987-88 and the 32 points he totaled in 1988-89. After a 59-point junior season, he signed with the Kings and was immediately thrust into action, eventually totaling a goal and four points in eight playoff games. Those who remember Game 4 against the Calgary Flames in 1990 – a 12-4 Kings win in which Dave Taylor, Tomas Sandstrom and Tony Granato potted hat tricks – Blake contributed two assists in what was the eighth time he had taken the ice in a National Hockey League uniform.
It’s not only the offense that springs to mind when thinking of Blake’s total package; his hip check, a major influence on players who followed, was borne out of shoulder injuries that forced the young defenseman to adapt.
“We used to sit on the bench in college and when that puck would come around slowly to the wingers in college hockey and Rob was playing right D, it was scary what he would do to those poor wingers on the boards,” Emerson said. “Like he would absolutely crush them and I don’t even know how these kids got up. It was mean, nasty, borderline hits.”
As Kings, Emerson and Blake only skated together for roughly one year. Emerson was traded to Los Angeles from Atlanta with Kelly Buchberger late in the 1999-00 season, and the following season Blake spent two-thirds of a season with the Kings before his trade to Colorado.
Emerson recalled the presence Blake had in the dressing room during the time the two were teammates in white, silver, black and purple – “and he still has it to this day when he walks into rooms.”
“Back then when he went into locker rooms or onto the ice, it was different. Rob was on the ice, he was one of 10 players. But everyone would look and ‘Four is out there.’ Then Rob would go off the ice and things would be a little more normal, and then Rob comes back on the ice. He just has the presence of him and it was the same way in the locker room and around the rink or whether it’s on the plane or getting on the bus. Back then, he presented himself like a Hall of Famer, and those guys are different.”