ROB BLAKE NAMED ASSISTANT GM: Frozen Royalty continues its in-depth coverage of the Los Angeles Kings naming their former superstar defenseman Rob Blake as their new assistant general manager. In this story, President/General Manager Dean Lombardi tells critics of Blake, and of his hiring, why their criticisms are unwarranted.
LOS ANGELES — It did not take long for a very vocal segment of Los Angeles Kings fans to express their rather vehement opposition to any involvement with the franchise by former Kings defenseman Rob Blake, who they believe betrayed the organization back when he left team in 2001 due to a very bitter contract dispute.
Blake left the Kings on February 21, 2001, when he was traded, along with Steven Reinprecht, to the Colorado Avalanche, in exchange for Adam Deadmarsh, Aaron Miller, a player to be named later (Jared Aulin), a first round selection in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, (David Steckel), and a first round selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft (Brian Boyle).
Blake’s departure came as a result of a bitter contract dispute that raised the hackles of many Kings fans who believed that his contract demands were excessive. That he went on to win the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche that season further deepened the resentment.
But what was already well known at the time was that Blake was the poster boy for the National Hockey League Players Association. Indeed, the union was very much behind Blake’s contract demands, pushing him to remain firm, even though the Kings had made it clear that they were not prepared to meet his demands.
During today’s media conference call announcing Blake’s hiring, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi acknowledged the criticism and opposition, but quickly threw ice cold water on it.
“The one thing that I’m aware of, and I understand where that sentiment comes from, it obviously goes back  years ago,” said Lombardi. “What happened here is one of the reasons he’s so respected. The problem with saying that sounds like a militant [point of view]. But I think what people fail to realize is, during that period, players were under enormous pressure from the union. That was the time, don’t forget, when the union was beginning to really flex its muscle. It was the beginning stages of the players getting to where they are today. If you remember, hockey players were well behind the other sports, in terms of the strength of their union, which was reflected in their salaries.”
“We were in the midst of this, and I saw it from the management side [while he was the general manager of the San Jose Sharks],” added Lombardi. “It was that period where the players really came together, and that everybody’s contract was looked at as having an impact on the other 600 guys [in the NHL]. This was truly part of the old theory that a rising tide raises all hopes.”
“As one of the top defensemen in the league, coming off a Norris Trophy-[winning season in 1998], when the union was looking at ‘who’s our biggest wage to raise this tide,’ it was Rob.”
Lombardi emphasized the pressure that put on Blake.
“A player is put in a very difficult position,” Lombardi explained. “On the one hand, he wants to be loyal to his team—I don’t think there was any question that Rob Blake wanted to be a King for life. But [he was] put in a very difficult position where, on the one hand, you’ve got an obligation to your team, but then the team becomes bigger, because you know it’s a team of 600.”
“I don’t think people understand the amount of pressure that’s put on a player in those situations,” Lombardi elaborated. “[In Blake’s case], if you want to stay there, that’s fine. But that’s not going to be good for the other 599 players. They need you to get X amount so that the next player coming up can draft off of you—’if I’m 3/4ths of Rob Blake, I get this.’”
Indeed, Blake became the NHLPA’s standard bearer in 2001.
“That’s just how it works,” Lombardi noted. “That’s the reality of that period. Even from the management side, most managers knew what Blake was up against. On the one hand, we were going, ‘that’s not right,’ but on the other hand, you’re going, ‘you know what? He’s doing it for the rest of the players.’”
“On the one hand, it’s a lot of money, and everything else,” Lombardi added. “No question about it. But it wasn’t about the money. It was an obligation amongst the players to support each other. In a roundabout way, by subjecting himself to that kind of criticism on behalf of 599 other guys, they get it.”
When discussing his reasons for hiring Blake, Lombardi emphasized the fact that Blake is very highly respected across all sectors of the NHL. But he also stressed that the big reason for the deep respect is because of the stand he took for his fellow NHLPA members in 2001.
“People in the business know that this was a reflection of his character,” said Lombardi. “You can understand why people would say, ‘that’s just greed.’ I get it. But there’s another side to this, and that’s where, when I say that I called around to every facet of the league, I’m not saying it’s the moment, but it’s a reflection of his character, in terms of his commitment to a team. It’s just that this team was a much bigger team. It didn’t just involve the twenty players in the [Kings dressing] room.”
“That’s a very difficult thing, and I saw some players with my team go through it, and I know how hard it was,” added Lombardi. “They had enormous pressure put on them from the union, and I can’t imagine what I saw with my players, what a Norris Trophy winner was going through.”
“So I get the [criticism]. But I would not, in any way, indict him for that one moment in his career, because certainly, this industry hasn’t. I can guarantee you that. There is nobody who doesn’t hold this guy—I couldn’t find one blemish on this guy, and not only [that], but how high in esteem he was held.”
Back to that respect thing again.
“When I go through [a background check], I can always find something, and I do my due diligence,” Lombardi noted. “If you put that type of character and commitment, and if he shows up with the work ethic that he showed with the league [while working with NHL Player Safety the last three years], he’s going to be a valuable asset to this organization.”
As for Blake, he stayed well above the fray.
“I don’t know that there’s anything I can say to persuade [Kings fans who criticize him] to change their views,” said Blake. “They’re entitled to their opinions on that. I’m fine with it. I know what my job, and my task is here, to help this team, and to be involved with the players coming up here. I’m ready and willing to do that.”
“That story—I’m very comfortable with my side of it,” added Blake. “I don’t think I need to re-hash the last 15 years of that at all.”
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