Cross Checks: Hockey Canada

TORONTO -- The evolution of Rob Blake continues in earnest.

Fresh off his newly appointed job with the NHL's hockey operations department, the future Hall of Famer was announced Thursday as part of Team Canada's management staff for the upcoming IIHF men's world hockey championships in Slovakia.

We're talking about the possible grooming of the next Steve Yzerman and Joe Nieuwendyk, both young star GMs in the NHL and massively important voices in the future of the sport.

[+] EnlargeHockey Canada
Pierre LeBrun/ESPN.comRob Blake was announced Thursday as part of Team Canada's management staff for the upcoming IIHF men's world hockey championships in Slovakia.
Blake is falling in line, picking up his post-playing career education by combining NHL league office experience with international hockey. Yzerman went to Red Wings U under Ken Holland and Jim Nill, who both had Hockey Canada management experience, before taking on the big job in Tampa. Nieuwendyk had front office college classes in Florida and Toronto before getting his break in Dallas. .

Will Blake run a team one day or work his way up the league food chain? Who knows, but right now it's all about gathering experience.

"Yeah I think you're trying to broaden your learning scope," Blake told ESPN.com Thursday after being announced as an assistant GM to Dave Nonis for Team Canada. "It's about the learning aspect. The league and the hockey operations part has been great. This is more the managerial aspect, working with players. In both cases it relies on my past experiences, which is good."

Anaheim Ducks GM Bob Murray and Hockey Canada executive Brad Pascall round out the Team Canada management team.

"Rob is a level-headed bright person and will be a great addition to Hockey Canada," Yzerman told ESPN.com. "He's an excellent choice to assist Dave."

Yzerman and Nieuwendyk were part of past Canadian management teams for the world championships, the annual May event that cobbles together mostly NHLers who didn't make the playoffs. Wayne Gretzky, the game's greatest player, was also and a part of Team Canada's management team and helped run the 2001 team in Germany ahead of his Olympic duties in 2002.

Gretzky, Yzerman ... Blake. Anyone see symmetry there?

"There's no question," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson told ESPN.com. "I just spent a day or two with [Blake] in meetings -- he's got the vision, he's got the feel and he's got the details. What amazes me with all of our elite players is how good they are with detail. I look back to Wayne and Steve, and now Rob, it's amazing. They come in and they've never done this, and it's like they've been in this for years."

Since Gretzky and Yzerman ran the Canadian Olympic team, can Blake be far behind?

Blake's face reddened like a tomato when I asked him about being part of the Olympic team staff three years from now.

"It would be an honor," he said.

Nicholson said anything is possible. At this point, the Hockey Canada president said nothing is set in stone yet for 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Certainly you'd think Yzerman would have the right of first refusal, given his gold medal delivery in Vancouver, just like Gretzky got to return for a second Games after running the '02 team that ended Canada's 50-year Olympic men's hockey drought.

Based on the impression I got from Blake, that decision is way, way down the road. For now, it's baby steps. He said he loves his new job at the NHL and is passionate about the opportunity with Team Canada. Blake's involvement is key for helping convince NHLers to partake after their seasons have ended. It's often a tough sell, same for Team USA. But in Blake, you've got someone who valued his world championship experience as a player, winning gold in 1994 and '97 for Canada. Blake has mentioned many times during his career that his experience at the spring tournament was immeasurable in helping him develop into an NHL star.

"The opportunity is tremendous and with success is even better," Blake said. "I was fortunate to play on two gold medal teams in Italy and Finland. That's even more important now when I look back at it in terms of what we accomplished and what you take with you. Now that I look back in terms of how it played a role in my career, it was real important."

Just like his new assignment is important. Just a stepping stone to greater things to come for him.

Nonis vs. Burke: Nonis, the senior vice president of hockey operations in Toronto, will be going up against his boss and friend Brian Burke, Maple Leafs GM, at the worlds. Burke is expected to be announced next week among the committee of NHL GMs that will run Team USA at the event.

"I try not to talk to him now so it'll be a little easier," said Nonis, joking. "Listen, I've already had some people ask me that question and ask how it's going to be with Brian more than likely heading up the U.S. team; this isn't anything to do with myself against Brian or any kind of side bets or anything like that.

"The fact is that there's a number of good teams -- the U.S. will have an excellent team in this tournament, the Czechs always do, the Russians are the No. 1-ranked team in the world. It's about putting the best Canadian team together and beating whoever we play. If that ends up being the U.S., we have to be prepared for them, or whoever else gets in our way. At the end of the day, it's about putting the best team together. There won't be any personal issues at all in this one."

SPONSORED HEADLINES