ROB BLAKE JERSEY RETIREMENT: In part 4 of a multi-part series on the Los Angeles Kings retiring superstar defenseman Rob Blake’s jersey number 4 on January 17, former Kings defenseman and captain Mattias Norstrom spoke exclusively with Frozen Royalty about Blake, both as a player, and as a person.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — With the Los Angeles Kings’ retirement of superstar defenseman Rob Blake’s jersey number 4 coming up tonight, Kings alumni, most notably, several of his former teammates, have made their way back to Los Angeles to pay tribute.
As one might expect, Blake’s long-time defensive partner and close friend, Mattias Norstrom, is one of those former Kings who has returned to the Los Angeles area to honor Blake.
“It means a lot to me,” Norstrom said about Blake’s jersey retirement. “I’m probably the player who’s been on the ice the most with Rob Blake. I can’t see that there’s been another player in this league who has been on the ice at same time [as much as Norstrom].”
“I’ve seen it up close, his performance on the ice,” Norstrom added. “But more importantly, I see the behind the scenes—the person that Rob Blake is. That means more to me than the player that he became. But we’ve been in this lovely game where you mesh it with what you accomplish on the ice.”
Norstrom said that he owes much of what he accomplished in the National Hockey League to Blake.
“For me, it would’ve been impossible, if it wasn’t for the person that Rob has always been,” said Norstrom, who lives in his native Stockholm, Sweden. “He hasn’t changed. That’s more important to me to be part of that, to show him that respect and to honor him when he gets his jersey retired.”
“When you break into the league—with the [New York] Rangers, when I was 21, I was fortunate to have 35-year-olds really show me what it was all about,” added Norstrom. “But for me, the most important player, forget about the person, for my individual career, has been Rob Blake, with the way he showed me [the ropes], being three years older. But he also made you feel a part of the team’s success, and in a way, in his accomplishments, too. If he had individual success, he’d be the first one to say, ‘yeah, but it’s because of my teammates, and that player, the trainers.’”
Like so many others have said about Blake, Norstrom took note of Blake’s humility.
“That’s such an important part of being an athlete, especially one who accomplished a lot, that he not only looked to himself, but he looked around to the people who made it possible,” Norstrom stressed. “I think it says more about his character than anything else.”
Norstrom, who is back in hockey again, doing studio work for the television station that own the rights to NHL broadcasts in Sweden, became the Kings captain after Blake was traded to the Colorado Avalanche on February 21, 2001, and he noted Blake’s influence on his own leadership.
“He had a tremendous impact on how I decided to be a captain because I couldn’t fill his shoes,” Norstrom explained. “But he’s one of those guys who [taught] you to just be yourself, and be true, so that whatever you say, whether it’s for the team or the media, that it’s you, that it’s coming from you.”
“I was fortunate, with the Rangers, to have Mark Messier as the captain, but I could relate more to Rob Blake,” Norstrom added. “His personality is closer to my own, so I won’t say that I molded my captaincy after Rob. But he showed me the way—what I believed in, and still believe, about how a good captain should be.”
While Blake was a good captain, he was a standout on the blue line.
“He was a very complete player, and it’s hard to find a weakness,” said Norstrom. “That’s been his strength, too. In his era, when he played his best hockey, maybe there was always someone who shot the puck a little harder, like [former Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals defenseman Al] Iafrate or [former Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues defenseman Al] MacInnis, and someone who maybe hit a tad harder. But if you sum it up to one player, who had it all, Rob did.”
“Don’t forget his defensive play with that good, long stick, the amount of space he took up at a defensive position, and the crushing hits. On the power play, he had more [assists] than he had goals, so he wasn’t just a scorer from the blue line. He was a set-up guy, too.”
Norstrom pointed out that Blake’s play transcended the game, despite how it changed during his career.
“From 1993 until maybe 2003, you’ve got to remember that the game was different then from what it is now, and it changed in between,” said Norstrom. “It went from where you still really looked at the history [of the league], with the toughness, the physical play. Then we went into the [neutral zone] trapping years, when it was low scoring. He was so dominant in that era.”
“I think the biggest compliment for a player like Rob, in that era, any team, out of the thirty teams in the league, would’ve picked him to put on their team,” added Norstrom. “That’s one of the reasons he played in the Olympics and World Championships. He wasn’t the guy who said he needed to play on the top pair with Ray Bourque [as an example], or you won’t get the best out of me. He could play on the second or the third defensive pair with anybody. Any team in the league would pick him to have on their team because of the way he could punish people, the shot, the reach, and what he represents.”
When you think of Blake’s punishing hits, there is one that Norstrom remembers…vividly.
“I don’t know if it’s on any highlight tape, but I was on the ice,” Norstrom recalled. “It was in Edmonton—the Russian, [Andrei] Kovalenko, number 51 [on October 11, 1998]. I think I was only ten feet away from it, and that was a thump. It was so clean, but he took him out with his hip. He came the other way. I remember that hit, and hearing it from so close, that knocked more than the wind out of [Kovalenko]. His lungs must’ve been completely deflated.”
“That’s the one hit I remember,” Norstrom added. “That could be the hardest hit I’ve ever seen. He just destroyed him. I think Rob said that even hurt him—the force.”
Norstrom, who sits on the IIHF Player Safety Committee, and on the board for his old team in Stockholm, AIK in the Swedish Elite League, also discussed Blake’s legacy with the Kings.
“I think he’s so important to what’s been happening here, with two [Stanley] Cups,” said Norstrom. “Luc [Robitaille] is one of them, but Rob is, maybe, the most important for this organization,” said Norstrom.
If you’re scratching your head after that comment, you’re not alone. Yours truly challenged Norstrom on that comment, given that Blake was with the Kings only for the first two seasons of Dean Lombardi’s tenure as President/General Manager, and did not return until he was hired as assistant general manager on July 18, 2013, more than one year after the Kings won their first Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012.
Norstrom held firm in his belief.
“That real elite [level of play]—that’s something he brought to the Kings, through his captaincy, through his Norris Trophy,” Norstrom emphasized. “He brought a winning mentality, even before he won the Cup with Colorado. Before that, he showed that it was not acceptable, or up to the level we want to be, as an organization. He raised the bar to where it is today, because before, we were a good team. Now it’s a great team.”
“When you talk about building things—we learn this from school about the foundation—you can’t look just one, two or three years back,” Norstrom added. “I think you have to look further back, at the whole picture. You’ve got to take into account the Triple Crown Line, the Gretzky Era, even though you bring in a new person like Dean, who was big on what we see here, history and identity.”
“Dean’s biggest accomplishment was to funnel this into the success. But I don’t think you just grab it from nothing. Rob is part of the elite thing that’s been here. [Wayne] Gretzky is another. Luc is another, when you talk about individuals and building a culture that’s now turned into a winning culture.”
Norstrom praised Lombardi for his work to build the Kings into a two-time Stanley Cup Champion. But he pointed out that he had to have a little something to start with.
“Looking back, [the Kings have taken] a big step,” said Norstrom. “It’s not just making fine adjustments to one or two things. It’s big things that [needed] to change, and Dean has accomplished that. But in my opinion, it wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t have a player like Rob Blake who had been here, and pushed the bar higher.”
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