SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — Early in his 20th season, Rob Blake realized that this would be his final one as an NHL player.
Even as he performed at the level of a player younger than his 40 years, helping the San Jose Sharks reach the Western Conference final, he didn't waver. Blake made his decision official on Friday, announcing his retirement from a career that will most likely end at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I knew it was the right time. I have no regrets," he said. "I understood it was time to move on."
Blake leaves the game on his own terms, still able to play at a high enough level to compete in the NHL and healthy enough to do it for another year if he had wanted. But he also knew he was not longer quite the same player he was a decade ago.
"I know I had slowed down in different aspects," he said. "When you've played at a certain level and can't accomplish some things. ... I would watch video and I'd see I was a step slow there. A lot of people might not see it, but I knew inside."
Blake had a decorated career, helping the Los Angeles Kings advance to the Stanley Cup final in 1993, winning the Norris Trophy for the Kings as the league's top defender in 1998, hoisting the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001, and earning an Olympic gold medal for Canada in 2002.
He helped San Jose post the top regular-season record in the West in each of his two seasons with the team but was unable to get the Sharks to their first Cup final. The Sharks were swept by eventual champion Chicago in this year's West finals.
"He's an elite level player but he has a blue-collar heartbeat," Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. "It's been a privilege and an honor to have Rob Blake play for this hockey team. Going forward we're going to reap those benefits."
Blake took over as captain in San Jose this past season, providing a steady hand and setting a professional example that helped the Sharks reach the second Western final in franchise history.
Teaming with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Blake had seven goals and 23 assists in 70 games and was one of the team's most reliable defenders. He added a goal and an assist in the playoffs.
"We're all a little disappointed that you decided to retire," coach Todd McLellan said in a phone call during the news conference. "We'll miss your professionalism around the locker room. When you came in and joined the Sharks family you set some standards on and off the ice that are second to none."
Teammates Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov and Devin Setoguchi came to the news conference to honor Blake. Former teammates Tony Granato, Glen Murray and Nelson Emerson also were on hand, while Joe Sakic sent a video message, and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson also called in to praise Blake.
Blake said his immediate future involves returning to Southern California to spend time with his wife and two children. He said he will stay away from hockey until about Christmas but would like to get back into the game then, possibly as a scout or an announcer.
Blake's departure is the first of what could be many key changes on the Sharks before next season. Marleau, the team's leading goal scorer last season, and Nabokov, the starting goaltender, are both eligible to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.
The team also will need to pick a new captain, with Thornton, defenseman Dan Boyle and forward Joe Pavelski among the possibilities.
"There's a lot of different choices there," Blake said. "We've always said the past couple of years that it's a leadership group. One person will wear the 'C.' That's the history of the game. But it's evolved into a group of leaders."
Blake grew up on a farm in Ontario, never envisioning what his career would entail. He played college hockey at Bowling Green and was a fourth-round pick by Los Angeles in 1988. He came up late in the 1989-90 season after finishing his college career. His first goal as an NHL player came in the playoffs against Calgary.
Blake was a key cog for a Kings team, led by Wayne Gretzky, which lost in five games to Montreal in the 1993 Stanley Cup final. Blake replaced Gretzky as captain in Los Angeles in 1996 and was traded in February 2001 to Colorado. He had six goals and 13 assists that postseason for the Avalanche, leading them past New Jersey in seven games for championship.
He returned to Los Angeles in 2006 as a free agent and then left to join the Sharks in 2008.
Blake leaves the game 10th on the career list with 240 goals as a defenseman. He finished his career with 537 assists and 777 points. His 136 power-play goals are the third most by an NHL defenseman, trailing only Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (173) and Al MacInnis (166).