Blake endures

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:57 AM ET

No matter what he did on the ice, no matter how many undrafted college players he was stuck beside, no matter how often he was criticized, Jason Blake was going to have a good season.

How could he not?

After going through hell, the only direction to go was up.

"I think the biggest thing in hockey and life, when work's going good, life's good," Blake said yesterday, after completing his so-called exit interview with Ron Wilson and the Maple Leafs coaching staff. "If you're a goal scorer and you're scoring goals, life is great.

"I had a lot of fun this year, we had a great group of guys. We stuck together all year and we showed some nights that we're a great team," he added. "My mind is in the right spot, and that's main thing."

Blake played well this season and that's a reason to celebrate. But even better, it has been 18 months since the second-year Leaf was diagnosed with leukemia. With that weighing on his mind, Blake, who had just signed a five-year, $20-million deal following a 40-goal season with the New York Islanders, went out and managed just 15 goals in his first season with the Leafs.

Blake obviously wasn't happy, Leafs fans weren't happy and it's likely management wasn't happy either. All of which made this past season such a relief for the Moorhead, Minn. native.

The Leafs finished below .500 again and missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, but Blake rebounded in a big way, leading the team in scoring with 63 points, and in goals, with 25, and was selected to play for Team USA at the world championship later this month.

And better than all of that, he's still healthy.

"I think about (the leukemia) every day, every day I'm reminded of it," Blake said. "Every day I have to take my medicine in the morning. But after that, I'm done. I move on. I go to practice, hang out with my family and my kids and that's the greatest thing. I'm fortunate and blessed to take a pill to live a long and healthy and happy life."

But the question remains. Do the Leafs want Blake around as they rebuild with impressionable young players? Because for all of his optimism and improved play, Blake still has a caustic side and reputation of not being the greatest team guy in the world -- as was evidenced a couple of times this season when he went at it with rookie forward Mikhail Grabovski in practice. He also snaps at the media on a fairly regular basis, which he did again yesterday.

Leafs GM Brian Burke has had nothing but good things to say about the way Blake handled himself this season. But you know, given half the chance, he'd trade him. And, it seems, Blake wouldn't have a problem with that. He is, after all, a guy with perhaps two or three good seasons left and has never made it past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"I'm not going to lie to you, you want to be in the playoffs every year, you want to win that first round and keep going on," he said. "The more you play, and farther it goes, the more exciting it gets. So it's tough.

"I'm not getting any younger, I'm 35," Blake added. "I don't know Brian that well but I know he's a winner, and he's going to make darn sure that this team wins. But, at the same time ... well, there's no question you want to be in playoff contention, be on a team that's competitive every night."

Blake has $10.5 million over three more seasons left on his deal, so it's still virtually impossible for Burke to trade him.

But perhaps, given his production this season and sunny disposition (relatively speaking), Burke may be able to pull something off. Either way, Blake's a happy guy.

"I love it here," he said. "And I expect to be back in September."


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