Evan Grossman | NHL.com Staff Writer
Jan 17, 2007, 12:00 PM EST
Nobody ever thought he’d be an All-Star. For that matter, nobody ever thought Jason Blake would be on a top scoring line, and for a brief time not so long ago, even Blake didn’t think he had much of a future in hockey.
But the New York Islanders took a chance on the sparkplug winger with a game and an attitude that had the personality of a cactus. He rubbed people the wrong way, mostly opponents, and Blake found a home on Long Island as a ferocious and tenacious fourth-line pest after the Islanders traded a conditional draft pick for him in 2001.
Peter Laviolette took over as head coach the next season and Blake earned a regular spot on the penalty kill and learned to use his world-class speed on the third and fourth lines. He was a checking line player who once got Mario Lemieux so mad that No. 66 held his stick up in front of Blake’s face and told him, “You’re going to eat this.”
“Everyone has their own little niche in the league,” said Blake, generously listed in the media guide as 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. “I’m not the biggest guy. I’m not the most skilled guy. Everyone in the league has to find something they do well. For me, I pride myself on consistency and work ethic. It’s definitely gotten me where I am today.”
Mario was literally twice Blake’s size and that stick was even taller than Blake. But he never backed down, never took a shift off, and has similarly found himself on the bad side of many of the game’s skill players. That fearless attitude has endeared him with Islander fans and blue-collar hockey enthusiasts who follow the game.
But now Blake finds himself headed to his first NHL All-Star Game and he is regarded among those same skill players he used to enrage. Blake is now on the Islanders’ top scoring line, is on pace to shatter his previous career high of 28 goals set last season, and Blake is no longer a role player just trying to hang on to an NHL job.
“If the Islanders didn’t take a chance on me six years ago, I don’t know where I’d be,” Blake said. “At that time, six years ago, I was so frustrated I didn’t know if I wanted to play hockey any more.”
His production has grown each season since the Islanders started giving him minutes commensurate with his contagious work ethic. Blake caught Laviolette’s eye in his first training camp in Lake Placid on the “Miracle on Ice” rink and scored eight goals during the 2001-02 season. The following year, teammates remarked that Blake’s hands were catching up with his feet and he responded with 22 goals and was invited to play on the United States World Cup team. Last season, Blake dumped in 28 and was so impressive in the first half of the year that he was named to the U.S. Olympic squad that went to the Torino Games.
First-liner. Team scoring leader. World Cup athlete. Olympian. Now the 33-year-old Minnesota native can add All Star to his growing resume.