One Memorable Night: The Great One and Mr. Blake

29 August 2019

As I touched on during my Developing a Hockey Fan series, I had a tough time grasping the sport as I went through high school - the influence of the other sports I followed was too great, and the lack of media coverage didn’t help either.  Thankfully, the burgeoning fan that I had become was now playing hockey video games and periodically watching games on ESPN as I approached graduation in 1993.  That was a magical spring: I finally got my driver’s license as I was completing the rigors of high school, and that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs were absolutely amazing (I still contend that those postseason games played one of the most significant roles in turning me into a hockey fan).

Living in the Eastern Time Zone in Kentucky made it somewhat difficult to stay up late enough to see the games from the west coast, but I tried my best because I wanted to see the Los Angeles Kings, who were making an improbable run though the playoffs.  After years of hearing his name, I was finally able to watch Wayne Gretzky play on a regular basis and I was completely stunned - his fluid skating and effortless passing was a thing to behold.  Though he was surrounded on that Kings team with prolific scorers and veteran role players, it was a young 23-year-old defenseman named Rob Blake who also caught my attention, due to his powerful slap shot and ability to throw perfectly-timed body checks with vicious force.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching Gretzky, Blake and company as they won three consecutive series over higher-seeded opponents to make a surprise appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, where they would ultimately fall to the most-storied franchise in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens.

Though the Kings’ Cinderella run had abruptly ended, I still enjoyed each moment of that Final series - so much so that I even stayed home to watch one of the games instead of attending my Senior Prom (not that I had a date anyway).  When my family moved to Illinois that summer, I soon adopted the nearby St. Louis Blues as my favorite team since I could watch all of their games on television - but I still made it a point to tune in for as many Kings games as possible, so I could see “The Great One” and the dynamic young blue liner.


October 6th, 1993.  It was a day that many sports fans remember: Michael Jordan, basketball’s greatest player, announced that he would be retiring from the NBA after his Chicago Bulls team had just won their third consecutive championship.  That night, I vividly recall tuning into ESPN2 - which was brand new at the time - to watch a roundtable discussion about legendary athletes and their lasting impact on sports.  Following Jordan’s retirement, the panel was asked: “Which veteran athlete on the verge of retirement should sports fans go see in person as soon as possible?”  While the most common answer was quarterback Joe Montana - who was wrapping up his Hall of Fame career with the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at the conclusion of the 1994 NFL season - one panelist mentioned Wayne Gretzky, passionately instructing fans to feast their eyes on the dazzling playmaker before he soon walked away from the game (his point still remains, even though Gretzky would go on to play SIX more seasons!).  Now that I was living close enough to St. Louis to see NHL action in person, I specifically perused the schedule to find out when The Great One and his teammates would be in town during the upcoming season - that day would be April 7th, 1994.

I began taking classes at the local community college in January, and as luck would have it, I befriended another hockey fan named Brent during our freshman orientation.  Brent had been to several Blues games in St. Louis, so I suggested that we buy tickets for the April game against the Los Angeles Kings, which at the time involved the arcane process of calling up Ticketmaster and choosing seats over the phone.  I knew I would have a difficult time waiting so long to see my first NHL game, so Brent wound up taking me to see the Blues host the Washington Capitals in February - but still, that night in April would be circled on my calendar.  And then a problem arose…

I only enrolled in four classes during that first college semester, one of them being a seemingly intensive Trigonometry course.  On the first day, the instructor (Mr. Coers) gave us a syllabus noting the dates for each of the four exams, the third of which would be held on Friday, April 8th - the day AFTER that game against the Kings!  I guess it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the game knowing there was an exam on the horizon the following morning.  However, Mr. Coers explicitly stated on that first day that if anyone had a conflict in which they would like to suggest a change to an exam date, they could come visit him during his office hours to make their case and he would take it under consideration.  I wasn’t sure that something as trivial as a hockey game would be significant enough to ask the entire class to alter their schedule, but I figured the worse he could do was say “no”, so I approached his office with great trepidation.

Let me now state for the record: Mr. Coers would ultimately become one of my favorite professors at that college.  He always had a sunny disposition, and taught his class with great conviction - he was genial but tough, fair but accepting.  He was also quite laid-back, and that was never more evident than on that fateful day when I stepped into his office.  We chatted for a lengthy period of time, with him asking about my high school education, and me inquiring about his teaching career.  When it finally came time to ask him to change the exam date to two days earlier, I did so with ease and he listened with patience.  “Well, I wouldn’t want you to have to bring your books and study from your seat inside the arena, now would I?”, he responded.  Could it really be that easy??  Well, there was a catch, as he continued: “I’d like for you to enjoy the game, Mike, but we’ll have to check with the rest of the class and make sure there isn’t any issue”.  To his credit, he didn’t mention my name - nor the reason for my request - when he asked my classmates to speak up if anyone objected to the change.  No one raised their hand, and I was free to go to the game with a clear head.  Do I feel guilty?  Maybe.  But for all I know, someone else may have also wanted to change that exam date but hadn’t been bold enough to ask.  Whatever.  I was going to see The Great One!

If memory serves, Mr. Coers even said, “Enjoy the game!” when I handed in my test on April 6th!


The day had finally come, so Brent and I loaded up on memorabilia before heading to St. Louis.  He had learned that you could meet the players in the arena parking lot before games, so we each bought a handful of St. Louis Blues hockey cards from a local shop - plus, I had bought a program at the game in February to get autographs for any additional players.  I knew there might be little chance to meet any of the Kings, but I wanted to make sure I had something just in case, so I got a Los Angeles puck and a Rob Blake card.  Why not?

We assembled in the parking lot with our fellow “autograph hounds” and patiently awaited the players’ arrival.  One Blues player here, one Blues player there, and I was slowly collecting a nice set.  I got about a dozen players to sign my program, and wound up with another seven or eight autographed cards - including my two favorite members of the team, Craig Janney and Brendan Shanahan.

In between the sporadic arrivals of the St. Louis players, a large bus pulled into the parking lot - it was the Kings, and everyone swarmed the area.  As one might expect, Wayne Gretzky exited the bus surrounded by a group of teammates who served to shield him from the adoring fans, allowing him to quickly enter the building without signing any autographs.  I knew I wasn’t going to meet him, so I instead set my sights on Rob Blake, who had quietly departed the bus without any recognition.  I grabbed my card and approached...

“Mr. Blake? May I please have your autograph?”

Simple yet effective.  I had learned that when asking for any autograph, one should always address the recipient with formal courtesy, which usually makes them much more receptive.  I was the only one in the group who followed him, and Rob seemed genuinely shocked that anyone in St. Louis recognized him out of uniform.  He graciously signed my card and walked away to catch up with his teammates - and just like that, it was over.  But it was SUCH a great memory, as most fans will tell you when they have a pleasant encounter with someone whom they admire.

There was a pregame ceremony to honor Wayne Gretzky for having recently broken Gordie Howe's all-time NHL goal-scoring record, and once the puck was dropped we were treated to some very entertaining hockey: both teams fired numerous shots on the opposing goalie from the outset, and the Blues led 3-1 after two periods.  However, the floodgates would open in the final frame, as St. Louis scored three more times to squash any hopes of a Los Angeles comeback - the Kings added a late goal, but the Blues ultimately skated off with a 6-2 victory.  It was to be my one and only time seeing Wayne Gretzky skate in an NHL game, and I'm glad I took advantage of the opportunity.  But would it be the final time I'd see him in person?


Rob Blake would go on to play FIFTEEN (!) more seasons in the NHL, winning the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman in 1998, and was selected to eight NHL All-Star Games.  The final accolade would be handed down in 2014, when he was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame.  His career with the Kings resumed in 2013, when he was named as the team's assistant general manager - a role which also included the additional responsibility of serving as general manager to their AHL affiliate, the Manchester Monarchs.  By 2015, the Monarchs had relocated to Ontario, California, and I would occasionally make the hour-long drive to see them live, most notably on the evening of February 6, 2016.

My friends and I were seated in the lower bowl of the arena, directly in front of a suite containing several Kings staff members, including head coach Darryl Sutter and Rob Blake.  We chose to roam around the concourse after the first period ended, but I did notice that Rob was greeting fans who stood outside the suite - I knew we had to go there during the second intermission and try to meet him.  Other fans would surely have the same idea, so I ran to the suite at the conclusion of the period and introduced myself.  He was nice enough to pose for a picture, and I told him the story of how I had gotten his autograph in St. Louis back in 1994.  His response: "Wow! That was a long time ago!"

Eight months later, Wayne Gretzky made an appearance at a local Barnes and Noble to sign copies of his new book, 99: Stories of the Game.  It was a high-profile event, so I had to go to the store early in the morning and wait in line outside in order to get a wristband that would allow me to come back that night for the signing.  Thankfully, there weren't too many people queued up when I arrived at 8:30am, and the next 90 minutes of standing around actually did go by rather quickly.  I got my wristband and a copy of the book, so it was just a matter of getting through the workday.

There was quite a crowd when I returned that evening, but at least I knew I had a reserved spot in line thanks to the wristband.  As the banner outside displayed, Wayne would only be signing autographs - there were to be no pictures with the man himself, but that was just fine by me.  In addition to the book, I also brought along that Kings puck that I bought in 1994 just in case he was willing to sign other items.  I also thought it would be amusing if I wore my vintage St. Louis Blues jersey, which was similar to the one he wore during his all-too-brief time with the team.

The line crept along slowly, as Wayne made sure to take his time with each fan while inscribing his name into their book.  When my time arrived, I nervously approached and held out both items - he quickly used his blue marker to sign the book, then used another silver marker to autograph the puck.  It was too perfect! 

As he was handing my belongings back to me, I pointed to my jersey and said, "What do you think?", hoping that it might elicit a smile or even a quick anecdote.  Without missing a beat, he silently grabbed the blue marker and signed the jersey near my left shoulder!

Who knew that holding onto that Kings puck for over two decades would have such a dramatic payoff?  We should all be so lucky...

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