Former Maple Leaf Jason Blake reflects on defying the odds

Toronto Maple Leafs' Jason Blake celebrates with Niklas Hagman, of Finland, after scoring the fourth goal against the Montreal Canadiens during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009. Toronto won the game 5-2. (CP)

Though Jackson Blake – son of retired forward Jason – has not yet played his first NHL game, he’s already achieved distinctions in his young hockey career that eluded his father.

Jason Blake, unlike his son, was never drafted, nor did he compete at the World Juniors. The former Toronto Maple Leafs forward had an odds-defying battle to make it to the league and had to fight through adversity to stay there.

On Thursday, Blake reflected on his time in the NHL and discussed his son’s ongoing journey to the league in an interview on the JD Bunkis Podcast.

“I wasn’t the most skilled guy – everything that I tried to get or got was through my work ethic,” said the 13-year NHL veteran about his path to the pros. “I knew being a smaller guy in the NHL … I knew what my strengths and my weaknesses were, and I knew that if my work ethic was always at the top of my list that I’d always figure it out.”

Blake did figure it out, first with the Los Angeles Kings in 1998, and then the New York Islanders, Maple Leafs and Anaheim Ducks. He finished his 871-game career in 2012 with 213 goals and 486 points.

But his career was not without challenges, to say the least. In 2007-08, fresh off a career-high 40-goal season with the Islanders and three games into a new contract with the Leafs, Blake was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia.

“It was a tough year on and off the ice,” Blake reflected. “I didn’t feel sorry for myself, I just tried to manage it.

“It was a shock to the system … but I tried to do everything I could to put the jersey on every night.”

Like he’d done his whole career, Blake battled. After moving to a new city (and country), being diagnosed with cancer and taking what he described as “chemotherapy in a pill,” the lefty from Moorhead, Minn., played all 82 games that season.

“I lost 10 to 15 pounds in two weeks,” Blake recollected. “I couldn’t hold food down.”

Through all that, Blake also had to rationalize the lofty expectations that a Toronto hockey market places on the shoulders of a top-notch free-agent signing.

“You sign a big deal, and you want to perform, and you want to do all these things that you did before, and when you feel like your body is not capable of doing it… I just – I don’t know – I just wish that I could have gone back that year (and) did it over,” said Blake.

“It put a lot of stress on my life – a lot of stress on my family’s life.”

Blake was given the Bill Masterton Trophy that season, an honour awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

Blake’s resolute competitive spirit is something he passes on to his son, Jackson, who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2021 and notched one goal and seven points in Team USA’s bronze-medal effort at the World Juniors this year.

“Coaching Jackson, you still have that competitive nature, and you still have that fire burning,” said Blake. “(He) was just so driven towards hockey, and I’m just glad he didn’t burn out at a younger age.”

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