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International experience for Canada paved Blake's path to Hockey Hall of Fame

11/13/2014 03:16 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - Rob Blake never liked to say no when Hockey Canada called. Two Olympics and one World Cup of Hockey were no-brainers, but for the defenceman from Simcoe, Ont., so were the world championships.

Blake was happy to go as a 20-year-old in 1991, even when he might have been flying to Helsinki for just one game. Eight years later he told general manager Bryan Murray he wouldn't play before having a change of heart.

"(I) called back the next day and said I'd go," Blake said. "I had said no because I had gone enough and it was a long season and that, but then I woke up the next morning and I'm like: 'What else am I going to do? In two or three days I'm going to be wanting to go anyway.' That was the only time I ever had any hesitation whatsoever."

Blake made a Hall of Fame career out of 777 points in 1,270 regular-season NHL games and then 73 points in 146 in the playoffs. But he was Captain Canada before Ryan Smyth earned that moniker, and his extensive international experience is a major part of why he's being inducted Monday.

One of 25 players in the world and eight Canadian players in the "Triple Gold Club" for winning Olympic and world championship gold and the Stanley Cup, Blake played in 58 games over nine tournaments. That included the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Olympics, 1996 World Cup of Hockey and 1991, 1994, 1997, 1998 and 1999 world championships.

"I enjoy it," Blake said in a phone interview last week. "That's why I think I answered almost every call I possibly could to go and play."

Since retiring, Blake was an assistant under Dave Nonis at the 2011 worlds and then was the GM this past year. At that point it was his job to call players and ask them to keep playing hockey after a long season without a playoff berth or after a first-round loss.

Blake was the poster boy for this, because he didn't have the word "no" in his vocabulary in those situations. Coaches and GMs appreciated that.

"I always felt as coach of the team, the best part of that job is when you called a Rob Blake or players of that ilk and you asked them if they would come and play for Canada and they said they would," said Andy Murray, who coached Blake in two worlds including a gold medal in 1997.

"The commitment that Rob made to play for his country and he's also served now as a manager of a world championship, he's always been there when Canada's asked him."

Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said it's important even now that a player of Blake's calibre committed to play so many times.

"I don't think anybody's ever doubted Rob's integrity and ability to play the game and his commitment to playing for Canada," Renney said in a phone interview. "It's huge because we're still going to tap on people's doors and ask them to participate and when you have men like the quality of Rob Blake and others that are willing to put the jersey on and go play, that speaks volumes as to how much playing for your country means for those guys."

Current Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Johnston, who had Blake at three different world championships, knows he's different than most Canadian players who participated.

"For players that go once or twice, then they say, 'Well, I've gone a couple times, maybe it's somebody else's turn,'" Johnston said Thursday. "But Rob Blake, every time we asked him, he came. Every single time. And a lot of guys will say, 'Well, it's getting close to an Olympic year, maybe I'll go.' He would go four years away from an Olympic year. He's an impressive guy that way."

Playing defence in an era that included Hall of Famers Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, Blake was a constant on the Canadian blue-line. He was never a candidate for world juniors because he was a self-professed late bloomer and went the college route to Bowling Green.

But after his first full NHL season with the Los Angeles Kings, Blake joined Canada at the worlds for just two games and got a taste of international hockey.

"That one stuck out to me just because it was such a short time — the team had been together for a few weeks and I was fortunate enough just to be able to join for a couple games," Blake said. "In those days the honour of playing for Team Canada was so important. I didn't even think twice of going over and playing potentially one game."

Blake was part of the 1994 team that won Canada's first gold in the world championship in 33 years and did it again in 1997. But the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, presented a different stage for everyone as the first with NHL players.

As Canada lost in a shootout to the Czech Republic and fellow 2014 inductee Dominik Hasek, Blake knew he wasn't getting his name called to be one of Canada's shooters so he undid his chin strap and yelled at the other bench. Getting over the defeat wasn't easy.

"You have to sit on that for four more years and you've got to hear how you didn't win and different things," Blake said. "With Canada, especially, if they don't win it's not success. ... It's a high standard to be, and when you come back from that you've got four years that you weren't the best country in the world."

Gold in Salt Lake City helped Blake and Canada re-establish that, and it came less than a year after he won his first and only Stanley Cup, playing for the Colorado Avalanche. Captain Joe Sakic let Bourque have it first, and Blake was the third player to get his hands on hockey's holy grail on that June day in 2001.

Blake didn't even know he was part of the exclusive IIHF Triple Gold Club until the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 when he was honoured at a ceremony. The only other Canadian players in it are Sakic, Niedermayer, Pronger, Brendan Shanahan, Eric Staal, Jonathan Toews and Patrice Bergeron.

"Whatever team Rob Blake was on," Murray said, "he's always going to be a leading player and more so than anything else the best kind of leader, and that's one that leads by example."

Blake was the top defenceman at the 1997 worlds, where he finally got his groove back after knee surgery limited him to six games in 1995-96.

"I went to the world championships and I think that kind of elevated my career from that point on," Blake said. "We ended up having success there and winning and carried it over to the next year. For me, it was another time to go and play and a chance to win something."

He won gold again at the 1998 Olympics and was again named top defenceman. No matter the tournament, Blake felt playing internationally made him a better player.

"I don't think there's any bad thing about it," said Blake, who's now an assistant GM with the Kings. "It gives you an opportunity as a player to see what other players do, how they prepare, how they play. You get different coaching, you hear different philosophies and different things."

The 2006 Olympics in Turin were tough on Blake and the whole Canadian team after losing in the quarter-finals. That disappointment helped build up the pressure for 2010 and even 2014 in Sochi when the Games were back on the bigger, international-sized ice surface.

"You feel that you kind of let down your country," Blake said. "You know what people at home say, how they want Canadian hockey and where it is established to be. The pressure of playing for Canada is that nothing is acceptable except winning."

Blake knows better than most about that mentality and embraced it.

"You understand gold or bust," he said. "I think where the hype really gets to it is the Olympics — World Cups and Olympics. That's a break in the season that everybody's watching, the only thing going on is those international experiences and that's where Canada's priority is and must be always to win."

Blake's time with Hockey Canada isn't over. After serving in management and two worlds already and looking like a future NHL GM, he's in the running to pick more teams in the years to come.

"There's lots of candidates, of course, and Rob would be one of those guys," Renney said. "He's certainly shown that level of commitment to the program as a skater and there's no reason to believe that he wouldn't be as committed if we were to tap on his door again in a managerial position."

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