The Wait Is Over
In the spring of 1990 baby-faced 20-year-old defenseman Rob Blake joined the Kings straight from Bowling Green and played so well in the postseason that teammate Wayne Gretzky said, "I don't know if he even knows how good he's going to be." Since then everyone has been waiting for Blake to take charge on the ice and stay healthy long enough to control games night after night—in short, to make a run at the Norris Trophy. "I've thought about that award since I came into the league," says Blake, who was named Los Angeles captain before the '96-97 season. "Now that I have a chance for it, I want it. That's driving me."
The assorted injuries that kept Blake out of 118 games during the past three seasons have healed, and now he's the unquestioned leader of one of the NHL's most improved teams. (The Kings, 28-43-11 a year ago, were 32-25-11 through last weekend.) In the Kings' 3-2 win over the Coyotes last Saturday, Blake scored his 20th goal—tops among NHL defensemen this season. "When he came here he would do things almost apologetically," says L.A. coach Larry Robinson, who was Blake's defensive partner at times in his first two seasons. "Now he takes command."
The Kings wouldn't be in second place in the Pacific Division without the sharp play of goal-tender Stephane Fiset or the on-the-tape passing of center Jozef Stumpel, but it's Blake who, according to L.A. defenseman Garry Galley, "has taken this team as his own." When discussing Blake's impact, the other Kings rarely mention his offensive numbers. They point to days like Feb. 25, when Los Angeles had its first post- Nagano game. While many travel-weary Olympians around the league took time off, Blake, who had played for Canada and was named the top defenseman at the Games, was on the ice for almost 31 minutes in a 1-1 tie against the Red Wings.
His teammates also recall plays like the one he made against the Sharks earlier this year, when he caught streaking center Patrick Marleau from behind and plucked the puck neatly off his stick. And they talk about the way the 6'3", 220-pound Blake can, in the words of Robinson, "destroy somebody with a hit that turns a game around."
Blake approaches opponents almost benignly, crouched over and butt-first. Then he levels them with his trademark hip check. He hits hard and often—"It's a way to control a game," he says—and he regularly drops players in open ice. "You're always aware of him physically," says San Jose center Bernie Nicholls. "In our meetings before we play the Kings, our focus is on how to handle Blake. He's the best defenseman we play against, and he's having the best season of his life."
Brian Burke's Leaving
A Replacement Candidate
After nearly five years in the powerful but thankless position of NHL director of hockey operations, Brian Burke has had enough. He's expected to step down after this season and take a front-office job with one of the four expansion teams entering the league over the next three seasons. Burke, who's frank, stoic and strong-willed, won't be easily replaced.
In addition to sitting in on rules committee meetings, attending collective-bargaining sessions and fielding complaints from the league's often querulous general managers, Burke is the NHL's disciplinarian. He metes out fines and suspensions to players who do things like crack a stick over an opponent's head. It's impossible to please everybody when doling out punishment, and Burke has needed every layer of his-burlap-thick skin to withstand the harsh criticism he has received from team brass and the media.
Because Burke hasn't announced his resignation and won't comment on his future, the NHL is mum on potential successors. Yet according to many people around the league, four men have emerged as top candidates: Dean Lombardi, the Sharks general manager and a labor lawyer; Mike Milbury, the blustery coach and general manager of the Islanders; Glen Sather, the architect of the Oilers' dynasty, who is Edmonton's president and general manager; and Pat Quinn, the former Canucks general manager who's also a lawyer.