By Allan Muir
Los Angeles Kings fans can finally cheer Rob Blake again.
At least, they can stop booing him.
Blake, who played 14 seasons with the Kings, was named assistant general manager today by Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi. He’ll assume the role vacated earlier in the week when Ron Hextall made a lateral move to Philadelphia.
Though homecomings are usually warmly welcomed, there’s no telling how this will go over in SoCal. Blake won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 1998 and served as captain from 1996-2001. But he became a whipping boy for the fans when he was dealt as a pending free agent to Colorado in 2001 and was heckled the rest of his career…even when he returned to L.A. for a two-year stint from 2006-08.
Still, this is a deft hire. Blake’s a smart guy. He’ll do a great job.
But here’s the part that really interests me: who takes his spot with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety?
Blake spent the past three seasons with the league meting out justice, serving as Robin to Brendan Shanahan’s Batman. It was a thankless gig, though his secondary position allowed him to duck when the rotten tomatoes were tossed in Shanny’s direction. So after appearing in a couple of videos and doing some behind-the-scenes work, he comes away with his reputation intact.
The gig he’s leaving behind though is an important one. Just last month, Shanahan toyed with the idea of joining Calgary’s front office in a hockey operations role. That didn’t prove to be the right fit, but now the idea is out there. Shanny’s ready and willing to move on if the right position opens up.
Blake was seen as his likely successor if he’d taken the Calgary gig. So whoever takes his place could be one handshake away from being handed a badge and told he’s the new sheriff in town.
So who’s up to the challenge?
How about Andy Sutton? The long-time defender, and regular guest in Shanahan’s doghouse after earning two suspensions in 2011-12 for checks to the head, told Hockey Night In Canada radio in May that he’d already spoken to Shanny about a job in the department. That might sound like a fox-in-the-henhouse scenario, but it makes some sense. Sutton, like Shanahan, played the game with an edge and more than occasionally crossed the line. He would bring an educated perspective to the position and, as a recent retiree, he would bring a current view on how the game is played.
But the league might be looking for someone with a little more cache to assume such a prominent role. Chris Pronger would be an intriguing choice, but he might not yet be up to the physical rigors of a daily job. And if you ask him, he’ll quickly tell you he’s not given up hope of getting back on the ice. Chris Chelios, the recent Hall of Fame honoree, would bring a similar hard-nosed reputation.
But here’s what the league really needs to do with the job. Instead of talking a good game about eradicating head shots from the game, put someone in the position who understands the damage they cause and will take a hardline approach to discipline.
You’re never going to eliminate head contact from the game, but you’ll put a good dent in the problem if players know they have to defend their actions in front of someone who lost everything to that kind of hit. Put someone like Andy McDonald or Paul Kariya or Keith Primeau in a seat of power and maybe we’ll finally see some suspensions with teeth.
Unless, of course, that’s not what the league wants.