New York state of mind

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:13 AM ET

Cynics around the NHL long ago labelled the New York Islanders' home digs as the Nassau Mausoleum, a direct shot at the lack of atmosphere -- not to mention butts in the seats -- in the building during the franchise's dark ages.

But Jason Blake knows the antiquated NHL barn, situated in the seemingly endless Long Island suburbs, has the potential to be a lively place, especially in the past few years during the team's modest resurgence.

Blake saw the wrath of the fans first-hand during the Islanders-Maple Leafs playoff series of 2002. Livid at Darcy Tucker's controversial hit that ripped apart the knee of Michael Peca, Islanders Nation angrily responded when the series moved back to Long Island by burning a Canadian flag in the parking lot and holding up signs with words such as: "Mother Tucker!"

Blake hopes the local Uniondale citizenry will exhibit a little more compassion when he makes his return to the Nassau County Coliseum tonight, even though the long-time Islander will be decked out in Maple Leafs blue and white.

"It should be fun but I hope they don't boo," he admitted. "That would be tough."

Blake truly is a fan of the place. On Page 41 of the Maple Leafs 2007-08 media guide he lists the Nassau Coliseum as his favourite road arena.

No surprise, since the rink served as his hockey home during a six-year span from 2001 to 2007.

Three consecutive 20-plus goal seasons in New York were trumped by his production in 2006-07, when he scored a career-high 40 times.

He became a fixture in the community, a place where his kids grew up and where he became best friends with Peca.

"When you are in a place as long as I was, you build special bonds, especially with the people at the rink that you saw every day," Blake said. "It'll be nice to see guys like the security guards again."

But will the pro-Isles faithful be glad to see Blake again?

A year ago, Blake, a pending unrestricted free agent, was becoming increasingly frustrated with the progress -- or lack thereof -- being made with Islanders general manager Garth Snow concerning a potential contract extension. At one point he even suggested that he likely would be in his final season as an Islander if a new deal was not hammered out by the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

Blake rejects the notion that he was taking a supposed sign-me-or-lose-me stance. It was a case of making the statement that he was, in his own mind, worth more than the $1.56 million US per season he was making at the time.

"I didn't want to leave, and I didn't want them to trade me," he said. "That was the point I was trying to make but it was portrayed the wrong way in some circles."

After a report in Newsday speculated that Blake was looking for a contract in the five-year, $18-million range, he did even better once free agency arrived, landing $20 million for the same tenure thanks to Leafs general manager John Ferguson.

Blake's honeymoon in Toronto ended quickly when, in early October, he announced that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. He takes a pill daily to treat the illness, all the while refusing to use his condition as an excuse for his slow start as a Leaf.

Almost every time he is asked about his health -- and you can bet he will be today -- he insists he is "feeling better than I have in years." We'll take his word for it. He, after all, would know.

At the same time, Blake, 33, is frustrated that he has just five goals on 150 shots thus far, a lowly 3.3 shooting percentage. He does have 16 assists, one of those coming in an 8-1 victory over the Isles on Oct. 11 at the Air Canada Centre.

Sure, he has played his former team once before, but tonight will be different. This one will be at the Coliseum.

"I haven't thought about being back too much but people have been talking about it a lot. It should be exciting."

Especially if he hears more cheers than jeers.


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