From pond hockey to the Hall of Fame

Walk through the historic Blake farmhouse, and there's little to no sign this is where a future Hall of Fame hockey player was raised.

The home was built in the 1800s on a plot of land in Simcoe, a town near north of Lake Erie and southwest of Hamilton in Southern Ontario. The dents in the front door where Rob Blake and his brothers launched tennis balls to hone their slap shots in the front hallway have been covered, a layer of history buried by coats of paint.

Robert and Sandra Blake are proud of their son, who will be inducted into hockey's Hall of Fame next week, but no more proud than they are of any of their other children for their careers in education or farming.

There are mementos from Blake's career, such as trophies and old VHS tapes of his first NHL games, stored away, but they're not on display. It's the Blakes' grandchildren, whose pictures fill the refrigerator, who get center stage in the kitchen. It isn't until you go outside to the garage and look up to the rafters that you catch a piece of Blake's hockey childhood that foreshadowed what was to come in his illustrious career as an NHL defenseman.

Draped over a rafter is a Larry Robinson Montreal Canadiens sweater, a Christmas gift from early in Blake's childhood.

"It's been there for a long time," Rob Blake said a laugh. "I'm not sure how it ended up there."

His best guess is it was worn in a road hockey game, soaked and placed up there to dry. It still hangs untouched; the Blake family is just superstitious enough to keep it there, considering hockey life has worked out quite well for the kid who proudly wore it growing up.

"Larry was an idol of mine," Blake told ESPN The Magazine. It's easy to imagine Blake wearing that Robinson sweater, emulating his childhood hero, while skating on the pond of his parents' 300-acre corn and soybean farm.

The Blakes' pond was created decades earlier, when a farmer put a couple of logs in a stream to dam up a spot for his cows to get drinking water. Long before Blake's parents took him by snowmobile to that ice for his first time on skates, his grandparents and their parents had skated it on. Hall of Famer Red Kelly, another Simcoe native, played hockey on it.

It's where it all started for Blake, like so many other Canadian kids who played pond hockey. What makes Blake's story unique, besides the Hall of Fame finish, is the hockey-playing kids who surrounded him as he learned the game.

One of the greatest youth hockey teams in the Simcoe's history was also one of its most self-driven. A nucleus of five boys, including Blake, stuck together from their first games at 4 and 5 years old until they started breaking apart for junior teams. Two ended up in the NHL and played a combined 1,876 regular season NHL games. When Blake goes into the Hall, a piece of those childhood teammates will go with him.

The boys had a phone tree. When they wanted to get together and play on the Blakes' pond or elsewhere, it started with one call. Then branched out from there.

"It was like a bracket, tiered out. Everyone had a job to do, to call a certain person. We didn't know it -- we were just having fun -- but we were learning leadership and responsibilities as we were growing," said former NHL goalie Dwayne Roloson, part of the group and one of Blake's closest friends.

Roloson still knows the phone numbers of the two players he always called. The memory of the list taped next to his childhood home phone is still etched in his mind. It's funny, the things you remember.

The boys would gather on the Blakes' pond and break only for hot chocolate from Rob's mom. If they had an organized practice at the local rink, this nucleus of boys made sure the whole team showed up early for a pre-practice scrimmage.

"We used to practice at 6 a.m., before school. It was nothing for me to get there at 5:30 a.m., and they're waiting on the ice," said Bob Kowalsky, who coached his son, Mark, along with the rest of the Simcoe boys. "They pushed each other to the limits. They worked together. They played together so long ... a lot of mornings they'd get going, and we'd even let them go another half-hour. That's how they developed."

They won just about everything they could while growing up together, but there was no real sign the tall, lanky kid on the back end was a future NHL player, let alone a Hall of Famer. After winning in Simcoe, Blake played two years of Junior B hockey, one for nearby Brantford and another for Stratford.

His play in Stratford attracted the attention of Bowling Green coach Jerry York, who made a visit to the Blake farmhouse to sell Rob's parents on his going the college route to continue his hockey career. Another local kid, Nelson Emerson, was playing at Bowling Green, and there was room for Rob if they were interested. When York visited the Blake farm, NCAA rules prevented him from speaking directly to Rob, but he won over mom and dad, who placed Blake's hockey career in York's hands. It was a wise move.

"If he said he'd be here at 10 to seven, you could set your clock by it," Robert Blake said in a conversation in his farmhouse. "He would answer any question you had, it didn't matter what it was. I remember [Mrs. Blake] asking, 'Do you think he'll get enough to eat?' Jerry York went through the whole thing -- there would be tickets for the meals and extra meals supplied by the hockey organization."

"I was worried there was no contract. It was a gentlemen's agreement," Sandra said.

"Jerry York won't break it," Robert answered. "Him and I shook, and that was a deal. I hoped that Robert would go along with it."

Rob went along with it, and it changed the course of his hockey career. He arrived at Bowling Green a skinny, gangly farm kid. He left an NHL player.

"He stayed three years with us. Each year he got better and better," York said. "His growth spurt as a hockey player was really something to watch. His freshman year, he was a good player for us. After the sophomore year, the Kings did everything to try and get him out of school."

"I remember when he came back from Bowling Green, it was, 'Uh oh, you are a hockey player,'" Rob's childhood friend and teammate Ric Boyko said. "We didn't realize how big he was. You know, when you grow up with somebody and you see them all the time? All of a sudden, it was 'Holy mackerel, you're a big person.' He was agile. He had the prototypical build. When he came back from Bowling Green, it was impressive to go out on the ice with him."

After Blake's junior season at Bowling Green, when he put up 59 points in 42 games, the Kings finally got their wish. They had selected Blake with the 70th overall pick in the 1988 NHL draft, and two years later they were bringing him in for the end of the 1989-90 season. He went from one special group in Simcoe to another in Bowling Green, and then a little bit of hockey magic kicked in as Blake's career shifted to the NHL.

The Kings brought him in for four regular-season games and a playoff run. His defensive partner to start his career? Larry Robinson, who had no idea his sweater was hanging in the new kid's hometown garage. Much of Blake's long, illustrious career is a blur, but he still remembers walking down the tunnel to the Montreal Forum, turning the corner to the dressing room and seeing his own NHL jersey hanging in a stall.

"My jersey was between Wayne Gretzky and Larry Robinson," Blake said. "I walk in there, and it is the greatest player to ever play and one of my favorite players growing up."

The flight to Los Angeles from Detroit, after he left Bowling Green, was the first of Blake's life. He had to borrow money for a cab from the hotel from Chris Kontos, who gave him a $100 bill. It was the first time Blake had ever had one in his possession. Behind the scenes, York phoned the Kings' Dave Taylor with instructions to look after the green college kid joining the team.

Oh, yeah, he was also pretty darn good at hockey, too.

"When you get a call from Jerry with that kind of message, obviously, I took it seriously," Taylor said.

Robinson saw the talent right away. Gretzky predicted a Norris Trophy for the young defenseman. Greatness, as it turns out, can spot greatness.

"I just remember Gretz saying 'That kid is going to be a Norris Trophy winner,'" former King Tony Granato said. "Wayne made that statement. Gretz realized what he was. I knew he was good -- really, really good."

"I remember the first day he walked into the locker room. Marty [McSorley] called him a big, strapping, farm boy from Simcoe. He was really shy and quiet," Gretzky told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun. "It was pretty evident just after a few games in L.A. he would be one of those guys who would be a shutdown defenseman and yet a guy we could also rely on the power play."

Developing quickly with help from his childhood hero, Blake eventually became the leader of a young group of defensemen including Darryl Sydor and Alexei Zhitnik that was part of the Kings' run to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals. During the 1997-98 season, Blake also made good on Gretzky's prediction and won the Norris Trophy. Blake would finish in the top five of Norris voting another six times.

Then, 10 years after he broke into the league, with the big-spending of the Bruce McNall era gone, the Kings couldn't afford to pay what Blake could make as a free agent on the open market. Taylor was now the GM of the Kings, and he had the unenviable task of trading the player he once helped transition into the NHL.

The trade happened when Blake and the Kings were in Edmonton. He had dinner with teammates at the Chop House and went to an Irish pub for a beer with Emerson and Mattias Norstrom. Before he heard from anyone official, Blake looked up to a television and saw he'd been dealt to the Avalanche.

"It was the hardest time in my career. You start playing your career, [and] you envision staying on the team the whole time," Blake said. "One phone call can turn it upside down."

The reality was he was leaving an organization in disarray and joining one of staunch professionalism, dead-set on winning the Stanley Cup every year. Like so many other times in his life, he was joining a hockey team with quality players and individuals. This time, Blake was walking into a dressing room with Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Ray Bourque.

The Stanley Cup that eluded him in Los Angeles happened quickly in Colorado. In 23 playoff games that spring, he had 19 points to help the Avalanche win the 2001 Stanley Cup.

"Getting Rob Blake was giving us size, was giving us experience and was giving us the skill," former Colorado coach and current Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley told ESPN The Magazine. "Most importantly, it was giving us presence."

For the first time -- and not the last -- Blake brought the Stanley Cup home to Simcoe. When he followed the Stanley Cup up with a gold medal with Team Canada in the 2002 Winter Olympics, he became the 11th member of the Triple Gold club -- those with a Stanley Cup title, a World Championship gold and an Olympic gold medal.

Before retiring in 2010, Blake played a total of 1,270 NHL games. He played in seven All-Star games. He earned the lasting respect of his teammates and peers for both his talent and professionalism.

"You always knew he was going to play a lot of minutes, be out there half the game, play against our best players, and he was also going to be a threat on the power play," former Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom told ESPN The Magazine. "He could do it all. He could play with skill. He could play with feistiness. He could shoot the puck. He was a tremendous defenseman and someone I compared myself to when I first came into the league."

Said Gretzky: "He was exceptional at big times, and in big moments he played his best hockey. He always went to another level. Those are the guys that get into the Hall of Fame. Simple as that."

Blake's on-ice success is only half the story, though. The hardworking, humble nature cultivated on the farm remains firmly intact. It's easy to see where it comes from.

His mom is the kind of host who has a cake made and apple cider on hand, even when a visitor only gives a day's notice that he's stopping by to talk about her son. His dad politely excuses himself from an interview about his son to go work the soybean field while the weather holds on a brisk fall day. Robert turns 80 years old this month, yet the combine still calls.

If anyone wonders why Blake works so hard as a budding NHL front office executive after he already left a legacy as a player, they just need to meet his dad.

"In this day and age of these athletes and their parents -- how they act, it's mind-boggling," Emerson said. "The way they treated Rob, the way they acted around him, it's special. It really is."

Talk to enough people around Blake, and it's not stories about his on-ice success they want to tell. It's the times Blake helped them out, repaying any help he got along the way several times over.

Former Colorado teammate Dan Hinote still drives a pickup truck Blake gave him for practically nothing when Hinote's old Dodge Durango was showing its age. Hinote's sister has three kids under 6, and she's using a crib Blake gave her.

"There's good people, and then there's people like him," Hinote said.

Blake still has a cottage back home, and Boyko once sent him a text saying he might need a place to host a wedding reception for his stepson. Three minutes later, he got a text back that said simply, "Done." Blake offered up his cottage, and one stress point surrounding the wedding was gone.

This summer, after Blake won the Stanley Cup as the Kings assistant GM, he pulled into Simcoe and up to Boyko's sporting goods store in a pickup truck with the Stanley Cup buckled up in the passenger seat. Blake was making a stop to share the Cup with an old friend before taking it to visit John Stevens' mother.

Luc Robitaille shared a story that pretty much sums him up. This past spring, as the Kings made their playoff run, the team plane got crowded when players were called up. Robitaille was sitting in Blake's office when Blake got orders to remove three people from the list of those flying privately on the team plane and put them on commercial flights. Blake didn't hesitate.

"I'm out," Blake said.

"I said, 'You can't kick yourself out,'" Robitaille recalled.

He had a point. This was Dean Lombardi's assistant GM, after all -- not to mention one of the franchises all-time great players.

"He said, 'If I'm going to kick anybody else out, I'm going to kick myself out first,'" Robitaille said. "Every young kid in the room was like, 'Wow.'"

He wasn't trying to send a message. That's just Rob Blake. He's a class act. After Monday's ceremony in Toronto, he'll be a Hall of Famer.

It's yet another trait he'll now share with his childhood hero, Larry Robinson.

"We're similar in a lot of ways, in that we don't ruffle a lot of feathers [and] we're easy to get along with. We're both team guys," Robinson told ESPN The Magazine. "When I think of complete defensemen, I would put him in the same category as the Potvins, the Orrs, even Ray Bourque, in that they could play both ends of the rink. I prided myself in that as well.

"I wouldn't feel at all uncomfortable with him being mentioned in the same breath as my name. I would be honored."