The doctor is in: Blake taking Johnson under his wing in L.A.
By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com
Updated: October 21, 2007, 9:54 AM ET
When the Los Angeles Kings look at the 6-foot-1, 201-pound package that is Jack Johnson, they see their future … and their past.
They see a big, mobile defenseman capable of contributing points and launching unwary attackers into the 12th row of premium seating behind the glass. They see a rawboned kid to build a franchise around.
They see a young Rob Blake.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Jack Johnson is living with Rob Blake and his family this season.
"Maybe, in a sense," corrects Blake politely, "but this guy has way more puck skills than I've ever had. His deception coming up ice. His tight turns. His decision-making. He sees the ice so well. He can bring the puck out all by himself.
"Plus, he has the ability to dish out these huge, open-ice checks like [Dion] Phaneuf. Given the size and speed of players today, when you catch someone now, it's a highlight-reel hit. Jack's going to be on a lot of highlight reels."
The comparison draws an argument from Johnson, too. For entirely different reasons, naturally.
"A young Rob Blake?" he grunts. "I wish. He's won everything -- an Olympic gold medal, a Stanley Cup, a Norris Trophy. I'd take that career in a minute. He's a sure-shot Hall of Famer. I'm just a rookie defenseman trying to learn the league and get better every day."
Blake remembers his first season in the NHL. As a King, he found himself a seat beside a future Hall of Famer named Larry Robinson and studied how the Big Bird handled himself and went about his job. It was comparable to apprenticing under Giotto or articling under Darrow.
"He was the blueprint on how to be a professional," Blake says. "As a young player, I could not have received a better education."
The education of Jack Johnson, the all-American defenseman, is full of daily lessons. Professor Blake is in charge of this tutorial. Class is always in session. When they spot Johnson and Blake together (which is often), the L.A. players tease Blake, calling him "Dad."
The description isn't that far of a stretch.
"We all need mentors," Kings associate coach Mike Johnston reminds us. "They help mold us, establish our parameters for success. Jack could not have a better mentor than Rob."
Johnson sits next to Blake in the dressing room. Johnson is boarding with the Blake family this winter -- Rob and his wife, Brandy, and their children, Jack and Brooke. He plays mini-stick hockey with the kids and appreciates the relaxed atmosphere of staying at a home rather than a hotel. He also appreciates the opportunity to pick his teacher's brain.
"He's a sponge," Blake says. "Rather than flop on the couch at night and play the latest video game, he's picking out hockey games on the satellite dish. He just loves to watch hockey. We'll watch a game and he's always asking questions. 'Is [Jarome] Iginla that powerful?' Or 'How would you handle [Sidney] Crosby in that sort of a situation? What's this guy like? Does that guy have favorite tendencies?'
"He just wants to soak it all up."
All of which makes young Johnson an ideal tenant, no?
And how is Blake as a landlord?
"Great," Johnson replies with a smile. "He hasn't asked for any rent yet."
There are other similarities between the old pro and the young phenom besides build, ability and appetite. Blake came out of the U.S. college system -- Bowling Green, specifically -- and played four games at the end of the 1989-90 season to become acclimated to the league. Johnson, from Michigan, got in five at the end of the 2006-07 campaign.
"Those five games made such a difference," Johnson says. "Without them, I would've spent all summer wondering what it'd be like, whether or not I could cut it. The transition was pretty smooth. I came in this year knowing that if I worked hard and paid attention, I could play in the NHL."
Playing in the NHL is one thing. Playing in the NHL in California is quite another, which is one more example of Blake's value to the kid's development; he understands the peculiar challenges of the place better than anyone.
"It's a different environment," Blake says. "When you step outside the rink, the hockey atmosphere is … gone. That's not the case in Calgary or Montreal or, to a lesser degree, when I was in Denver. In traditional hockey markets, it's all people talk about. You're accountable everywhere you go.
"I learned from Larry and Wayne Gretzky and those guys that, somewhere like L.A., you develop that atmosphere, that environment inside the dressing room and you work hard to maintain it."
Defenseman is a notoriously difficult position to master, particularly at this level. It's generally accepted that defensemen take longer to mature and prosper. Since 1932-33, when the NHL began issuing a Rookie of the Year award (later christened the Calder Trophy), only nine defensemen have won the prestigious bauble. They are, for the most part, a legendary lot: Bobby Orr, Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque, Brian Leetch.
Johnson is one of the leading candidates for 2008. Indianapolis -- known as the hometown of David Letterman, Dan Quayle, Joyce ("Come and knock on my doooooor …") DeWitt, Oscar Robertson, Jim Davis (creator of Garfield) and Brendan Fraser -- might soon be known as the hometown of Jack Johnson, too.
He could wind up being the worst deal the Carolina Hurricanes ever made -- shipping Johnson (their third-overall pick) and Oleg Tverdovsky to L.A. on Sept. 29, 2006, for Tim Gleason and Eric Belanger.
"What we've been very impressed with is his patience, in the five games we saw him last year and so far this season," Johnston says. "He had a reputation in college and in international hockey for going for the big hits. But he hasn't tried to ramrod his way into this league. He's come in respecting the game and the players.
"I believe it's harder now for defensemen coming in because of the new rules. You can't put a stick on a guy. You can't battle people in front of the net. You can't hold them up along the boards. So positioning, more than ever before, is vital. That's difficult for a young player to develop.
"Everybody knew he was good, but he's a willing learner and a quick student, too."
A young Rob Blake?
Johnson is right. He, and the Kings, can only wish.
But there simply could not be any better preparation for writing your master's thesis on NHL defense than learning the ropes from one of the best of an era.
And Professor Blake predicts nothing but great things from his prize pupil.
"He's the best I've seen in a long time. And he's only 20. To be that good at 20 is scary good."
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.