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Original Issue

Inside The NHL


In the spring of 1990 baby-faced 20-year-old defenseman Rob
Blake joined the Kings straight from Bowling Green and played so
well in the postseason that teammate Wayne Gretzky said, "I
don't know if he even knows how good he's going to be." Since
then everyone has been waiting for Blake to take charge on the
ice and stay healthy long enough to control games night after
night--in short, to make a run at the Norris Trophy. "I've
thought about that award since I came into the league," says
Blake, who was named Los Angeles captain before the '96-97
season. "Now that I have a chance for it, I want it. That's
driving me."

The assorted injuries that kept Blake out of 118 games during
the past three seasons have healed, and now he's the
unquestioned leader of one of the NHL's most improved teams.
(The Kings, 28-43-11 a year ago, were 32-25-11 through last
weekend.) In the Kings' 3-2 win over the Coyotes last Saturday,
Blake scored his 20th goal--tops among NHL defensemen this
season. "When he came here he would do things almost
apologetically," says L.A. coach Larry Robinson, who was Blake's
defensive partner at times in his first two seasons. "Now he
takes command."

The Kings wouldn't be in second place in the Pacific Division
without the sharp play of goaltender Stephane Fiset or the
on-the-tape passing of center Jozef Stumpel, but it's Blake who,
according to L.A. defenseman Garry Galley, "has taken this team
as his own." When discussing Blake's impact, the other Kings
rarely mention his offensive numbers. They point to days like
Feb. 25, when Los Angeles had its first post-Nagano game. While
many travel-weary Olympians around the league took time off,
Blake, who had played for Canada and was named the top
defenseman at the Games, was on the ice for almost 31 minutes in
a 1-1 tie against the Red Wings.

His teammates also recall plays like the one he made against the
Sharks earlier this year, when he caught streaking center
Patrick Marleau from behind and plucked the puck neatly off his
stick. And they talk about the way the 6'3", 220-pound Blake
can, in the words of Robinson, "destroy somebody with a hit that
turns a game around."

Blake approaches opponents almost benignly, crouched over and
butt-first. Then he levels them with his trademark hip check. He
hits hard and often--"It's a way to control a game," he
says--and he regularly drops players in open ice. "You're always
aware of him physically," says San Jose center Bernie Nicholls.
"In our meetings before we play the Kings, our focus is on how
to handle Blake. He's the best defenseman we play against, and
he's having the best season of his life."

Brian Burke's Leaving

After nearly five years in the powerful but thankless position
of NHL director of hockey operations, Brian Burke has had
enough. He's expected to step down after this season and take a
front-office job with one of the four expansion teams entering
the league over the next three seasons. Burke, who's frank,
stoic and strong-willed, won't be easily replaced.

In addition to sitting in on rules committee meetings, attending
collective-bargaining sessions and fielding complaints from the
league's often querulous general managers, Burke is the NHL's
disciplinarian. He metes out fines and suspensions to players
who do things like crack a stick over an opponent's head. It's
impossible to please everybody when doling out punishment, and
Burke has needed every layer of his burlap-thick skin to
withstand the harsh criticism he has received from team brass
and the media.

Because Burke hasn't announced his resignation and won't comment
on his future, the NHL is mum on potential successors. Yet
according to many people around the league, four men have
emerged as top candidates: Dean Lombardi, the Sharks general
manager and a labor lawyer; Mike Milbury, the blustery coach and
general manager of the Islanders; Glen Sather, the architect of
the Oilers' dynasty, who is Edmonton's president and general
manager; and Pat Quinn, the former Canucks general manager who's
also a lawyer.

Our choice, however, is former Canadiens defenseman Serge
Savard, who won eight Stanley Cups as a player and two as
Montreal's general manager, and who has been in private business
in Quebec since being fired by the Canadiens 2 1/2 years ago.
Savard, who is 52 years old, has a reputation for being
evenhanded, and he acquitted himself well before intense media
scrutiny in Montreal.

Most important, he's a bilingual French Canadian, the kind of
person who has been sorely missing from the high ranks of the
NHL. One of the casualties of the league's overexpansion and
megamarketing has been a loss of its history and traditional
identity. To add a French Canadian voice in a prominent position
would restore a sense of some of hockey's deepest roots.

Cliff Ronning

High twin uniform numbers are typically worn only by the NHL's
top players. There's just one number 99 (Wayne Gretzky) and one
number 88 (Eric Lindros), and the five players who wear number
77 include two future Hall of Fame defensemen (Ray Bourque and
Paul Coffey), a five-time All-Star center (Adam Oates) and a
sniper who scored 58 goals in a season (Pierre Turgeon). Oh,
yes, there's also the Coyotes' Cliff Ronning, a solid but
unspectacular center who over his 12-year career hasn't scored
more than 29 goals in a season or been selected to an All-Star

"Those are great players," Ronning says of his fellow 77s, but
he's not wearing that number because he thinks he's a star.
Rather, Ronning likes having 7s on his sweater because "lucky
things happen to that number."

Also, he says, "I like to play craps."

COLOR PHOTO: W. ROBERTS/B. BENNETT STUDIOS KING OF L.A. After three injury-plagued seasons Blake is playing like a Norris Trophy candidate. [Rob Blake]




1997-98 salary: $2.5 million

Had league-worst 3.68 goals-against average when acquired from
the Canucks in January; hasn't been much better since--3.29 at
week's end.

1997-98 salary: $1.3 million

Since taking over as the starter on Feb. 7, has kept Carolina in
playoff hunt; had a 2.27 GAA and .918 save percentage,
sixth-best in NHL, through Sunday.