Luc Robitaille: The King Of Kings – Part One
November 8, 2009 4 Comments
The following is an updated story written for the Online Kingdom back on April 14, 2006, a few days after Los Angeles Kings left wing Luc Robitaille announced his retirement as a player. It is being re-published in honor of Robitaille’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 9, 2009. To read part two, click on Luc Robitaille: The King Of Kings – Part Two.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — Back on April 3, 1995, the night that all-time Los Angeles Kings great Dave Taylor had his jersey number 18 retired by the club, this reporter wrote that he was the King of Kings, earning that right above other all-time Kings’ greats such as Marcel Dionne, Rogie Vachon and Wayne Gretzky.
“No Kings’ player had ever measured up to Taylor when it came to heart, the desire to excel and win and the ability and willingness to go into the corners and sacrifice his body for his team,” I wrote. “No other Kings’ player has ever come close to Taylor as far as leadership—on the ice and off—is concerned, [and] no Kings’ player has ever matched his relentless work ethic, his dedication to his team, the game of hockey and his community.”
To be sure, Taylor had earned the right to wear the crown as the King of Kings, and was a great standard bearer for the organization, both on and off the ice. But on Tuesday, April 11, 2006, the day that Kings all-time great left wing Luc Robitaille announced at a press conference that he would retire at the conclusion of the 2005-06 season, Taylor immediately abdicated the crown because his reign is over. Robitaille now wears the crown as new Kings of Kings.
The Legend Begins
One of my proudest moments as a general manager came when I drafted Luc Robitaille, who became the greatest left wing in NHL history.
— Former Kings star goaltender and general manager Rogie Vachon
Believe it or not, Robitaille was considered to be among the longest of long shots to make it to the National Hockey League as a ninth-round pick (171st overall) in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft.
“I remember in 1984 when I got drafted, it started at 1:00 PM, and by the time I heard my name, it was 6:30 or 7:00,” Robitaille explained to reporters at Tuesday’s press conference. “Everybody had left the Montreal Forum. The Forum was known for its great hot dogs, and I think I had five or six throughout the day. When I heard my name, I went down—everyone had left the building. The security guard says ‘you’re not allowed to go in.’”
“I’m trying to speak my best English, Robitaille continued. ‘I got drafted, I got drafted!’ Pierre Lacroix, who was then an agent—he saw me and he had seen me in juniors. He said, ‘this kid just got drafted.’ So they let me go and I went to the Kings’ table.”
“Alex Smart, the man who drafted me, was there, and John Wolf [former Kings Assistant to the General Manager], and that’s it. Everyone else was gone. Wolfie looked at me and asked ‘who are you?’”
“I’m Luc Robitaille. You just drafted me.”
“He looks at me, he looks in the box. ‘I don’t have anymore t-shirts, I don’t have anymore hats. But here.’ And he gave me his pin. I still have that pin at home somewhere. So that’s how it started.”
“I remember my thinking going home and telling my Dad ‘my name’s on the list,’ said Robitaille. “‘I have a chance. They will have to look at me one day,’ and that’s the way I took it. So from then on, I just did everything I could to make it.”
When Robitaille finally got his chance two years later in the 1986-87 season, he certainly made the most of it, scoring 45 goals with 39 assists, good for 84 points in 79 games in his rookie season, and going on to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year.
“I remember Luc coming to camp for the first time in 1984 and playing in his first games as a King in 1986,” said Taylor, formerly the Kings general manager and now the Director of Player Personnel for the Dallas Stars. “He has always had a passion to play the game and he has always been a goal scorer.”
“I was warned by the scouts about Luc’s skating but with his marvelous intelligence for the game, skating never became a factor, even in the high-paced game of the 1980’s,” said Edmonton Oilers head coach, Pat Quinn, who was the head coach of the Kings from 1984-85 through a bit more than half of the 1986-87 season. “The puck seemed to follow him around and he seemed to know what to do with it.”
“Luc not only had intelligence and hands, his best asset was his competitive drive,” added Quinn. “Luc was a pleasure to be around and you know he loved to play the game. Alex Smart was right. Luc Robitaille was someone special.”
A Pure Goal Scorer
When I think of Luc, I think “pure goal scorer.”
— Former Kings and current Vancouver Canucks defenseman Mathieu Schneider
After such a great start, Robitaille took the NHL by storm, scoring at least 44 goals in each of his first eight seasons with the Kings, including three seasons with fifty or more goals, and one season (1992-93) that saw the Kings reach the Stanley Cup Finals, in which he scored 63 goals with 62 assists for 125 points, setting the all-time NHL record for goals and points by a left wing in one season.
Robitaille still holds the points record by a left wing in one season, but Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin broke Robitaille’s record for goals in one season by a left wing when he scored 65 goals in the 2007-08 season.
Without question, Robitaille was among the purest of pure goal scorers who could put the puck in the net with a deadly, accurate wrist shot, a deceptively hard, accurate slap slot without much of a backswing, and one of the best one-timers in the game.
“I feel Luc is one of the most natural goal scorers I’ve ever played with,” said former Kings right winger Bernie Nicholls, who is fifth on the Kings’ all-time scoring list. “Luc didn’t score so many goals, however, because he’s lucky. He’s a pure goal scorer and it was an absolute pleasure to have played with him for five years.”
“His ability to be in the right place at the right time, combined with his poise with the puck, has been and remains uncanny,” said Nick Nickson, the Kings long-time radio play-by-play announcer.
“I have never been around a player who liked to score goals more than Luc,” said former Kings and current San Jose Sharks defenseman Rob Blake. “He loved to score goals whether it was a game or practice. Not only did he love to score, he also knew how to score. That is what made him one of the best.”
“The first time I saw Luc was at his first Kings training camp,” former Kings right wing and current television color commentator Jim Fox explained. “I remember a shot he took in one of the scrimmages that was a true ‘goal scorer’s’ goal, and it was at that very instance that you could tell he was special. Luc can score goals every way possible.”
But it was not just his incredible shooting ability that made Robitaille one of the game’s greatest goal scorers of all-time.
“I think an underrated part of his game is that he has been willing to take a lot of punishment to score many of those goals,” said Fox.
Indeed, Robitaille worked his rear end off, mostly by taking punishment in front of the opponent’s net, to get into position to score.
“What people don’t always realize is his physical presence in front of the net,” said Schneider. “He pays a price to score goals.”
“Luc and I played together with the Kings and Rangers, and in the 1991 Canada Cup as well,” said former Kings winger Russ Courtnall. “In New York, I played on a line with Luc and Wayne Gretzky, and I remember a conversation I had once with Mark Messier. Mess and I talked about how tough Luc was and how much punishment he took in front of the net. Everyone knows about his goal scoring ability, but it seems lost a lot of times in that he really has paid the price to score many of those goals over the years.”
“Hockey is the toughest game in the world to play, said former Kings left wing Pat Conacher. “A lot of people measure toughness in terms of penalty minutes. But I think you have to be a real tough player to score as many goals as he has because you look at where he scores all his goals, it is that fifteen-foot circle around the goaltender. The ‘red zone’ is the toughest place to score and that is an indication of how tough a player he is.”
Whether he was fighting off a check to get open, or just skating to an open spot on the ice, Robitaille knew how to make himself available to his teammates, and he worked hard at it…harder than many believed.
“Luc is one of the greatest goal scorers in the game because he went to the hard areas and always knew where the puck was going to be,” said former Kings defenseman Charlie Huddy. “If the game was on the line, you could count on ‘Lucky’ to give your team a chance to win.”
“When we played on the same line, he was easiest line mate to find for a shot,” said Sergei Fedorov, who played on Robitaille’s line while both played for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings in 2002. “He just found open spaces to play in and he always seemed open.”
Indeed, Robitaille did not just take punishment to score goals. He also did just about anything to score.
“When I first teamed with Luc on the [New York] Rangers, I knew Luc could score, but I quickly found out that he competed far harder than I realized,” said former Kings center Ray Ferraro, who is now a color commentator for TSN in Canada.
“He’s a dirty player,” former Kings and current Calgary Flames center Craig Conroy joked. “He’s a dirty guy out there. With these new rules you can’t slash and hook like you used to. He’d ride along with you and do stuff like that.”
“When I played against him, I was always mad at him because he was so dirty,” added Conroy. “I always hated playing against him. He’d hook you, hold you and trip you and then he’d score one of those goals. He’d get in a position and then bang, it was on his stick and in the net. I always disliked playing against him, but I loved playing with him this year.”
A Flair For The Dramatic
Game tied at two. Robitaille’s in front alone. He’s got it but he fell down. He backhands it and he SCORES! What a goal! The Kings win!
— Bob Miller’s call of Robitaille’s overtime game-winner at Detroit on February 24, 1999
Former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate and Hall-Of-Famer Mario Lemieux said, “Luc has been an exceptional goal scorer in the NHL for a very long time. He’s always had a flair for the dramatic and has been a thrill for fans of the league to watch for many years.”
That might be an understatement.
Robitaille has been well-known for scoring dramatic goals that leave one asking, “how did he do that?”
Early in his career, Robitaille scored the first of those goals when he slid into the left corner at the Forum in Inglewood, flat on his stomach, and when he reached the goal line, he took a two-handed swing at the puck, knocking it into the net, leaving everyone in the building totally dumbfounded.
And that included the Hall-Of-Fame “Voice of the Kings.”
“The most memorable goal that I remember…he was sliding on his stomach against Calgary into the corner,” said Bob Miller, who is in his 37th season of calling the action for the Kings. “I was thinking, ‘he doesn’t have a chance to score from there.’ In fact, I think I made an awful call on the play-by-play because I was amazed, as I think Luc was amazed, that he was able to sweep the puck into the net.”
Fast forward to February 24, 1999, and Robitaille does it again in even more dramatic fashion at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. As he fell backwards at the bottom of the right circle, he took a pass and, using both hands, he immediately swept the puck into the middle of the net, this time on his backhand, beating Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood for a stunning overtime game-winner.
Once again, everyone in the arena was left scratching their heads and with their jaws agape.
“Late in the game at Detroit, he went down to our right, and again I thought, ‘there’s no play here,’ and it’s in the net,” said Miller. “Goals like that just defy explanation. I’m not even sure Luc can explain it, except for having a sense for where that net is, even if it’s behind your back. The great goal scorers know where it is, and they can score.”
Indeed, Robitaille never hesitated on the play. He got the puck as he fell to the ice and as he did so, he immediately swept it into the net, all in one motion. It was evident that he knew exactly what he was going to do, where he was on the ice and where the net was throughout that sequence of events, and it is these kinds of plays that set the elite, all-time great goal scorers apart from the rest.
Just less than two years later, Robitaille was, once again, up to his old tricks.
At Ottawa on January 16, 2001, the Kings and Ottawa Senators were in embroiled in a shootout that the Kings ended up winning, 7-6. Robitaille scored twice in the game, but it was his first one that was memorable. Here is how this reporter described the play in the Online Kingdom’s report:
“[Rob] Blake chased down a long clearing pass on right wing in the Ottawa zone. He took a little wrist shot from the low right circle, but hit the side of the net. [Ziggy] Palffy picked up the loose puck in the right corner, but was checked into the right corner boards. He did manage to get off a quick pass to Robitaille, who was coming out from behind the right goal post. Robitaille got off a quick wrap-around that was stopped by [Ottawa goalie Patrick] Lalime. But Robitaille dove and poked the puck from between Lalime’s legs and into the net.”
“Lalime looked behind him after Robitaille’s first shot…he clearly did not know if he had the puck covered… .”
To be sure, this was another of Robitaille’s many goals that left everyone asking, “how did he do that?”
Some say it is because he just has the natural ability, while others say it an obsession.
“You can practice deflections and tip-ins, but there’s some sense that the great goal scorers have that other people don’t have, regardless of how many times they want to practice, or spend time on the ice, they can’t do what a guy like Luc can do,” said Bob Miller.
“With Luc, scoring is an obsession,” said former Kings defenseman and occasional right wing Marty McSorley. “Whether standing in street shoes lofting pucks into a net or banking pucks off the back of the goalies legs from the corner in warm-ups, the need to put the puck in the net is simple and consuming. That burning desire has given all of us a smile and forced the thought, ‘Is he Lucky or is he just that good?’”
Turtles Could Skate Faster
Not bad for a late-round draft pick who could not skate or backcheck.
— Former Kings tough guy Ken Baumgartner
OK, so I’m exaggerating about turtles, but you get the point. But as most know, Robitaille was a poor skater when he entered the NHL back in 1986, and that did not change much throughout his nineteen-year career.
Although better speed and skating ability would have enhanced his offense and to be sure, his defensive capabilities, no one can say that Robitaille was anything less than an elite player. He clearly overcame his poor skating by doing what he did best so well.
“I remember when Luc came into the NHL and people said he wouldn’t stay because of his skating,” said Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy, who played parts of four seasons with Robitaille. “He sure showed the world what kind of a hockey player and person he is. His dedication and perseverance as it relates to the game is second to none.”
“If you judged a player solely on their skating ability, you would probably say, ‘Geez, how can this guy play in the NHL?’ But he was efficient in everything he did and he always was an asset around the net,” said former Kings defenseman and head coach Larry Robinson, who was a big star for the Montreal Canadiens before coming to the Kings.
“A scout with the Canadiens asked me once who my best player was, said Pat Burns, who coached Robitaille when he played for the Hull Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. “I pointed to Luc and the scout said he couldn’t skate. Well, some 600-plus goals later he is still at it.”
“Coaching against him in the NHL, I would always tell my teams to pay close attention to him,” added Burns, who coached the Toronto Maple Leafs when they lost in seven games to Robitaille and the Kings in the 1992-93 Campbell Conference Finals. “While he isn’t always the first to the puck, he will eventually hurt you.”
As usual, Bob Miller’s eloquence and insight summed up the importance of Robitaille’s most glaring shortcoming.
“I’ll always remember the fact that he was just a pure goal scorer,” said Miller. “As much as people said he’s slow and can’t skate, the bottom line is he could score goals, and in this game, what’s the bottom line? Score goals.”
It Was Time
As a player, you always feel like you have something left in the tank. But there’s a time when you have to know and use your sense to say ‘that’s enough.’ And I think it’s that time for me.
— Luc Robitaille
Prior to the 2005-06 season, many speculated that Robitaille might not play again after the NHL locked out the players and cancelled the 2004-05 season.
And when Robitaille decided to play in 2005-06, many wondered if he would be able to keep up in the new NHL, a league that has been transformed by rule changes that emphasize skating, skill and speed.
And as the season wore on, it was clear that Robitaille was having some difficulties in the now fairly wide-open game. And with just fifteen goals and nine assists for 24 points in 63 games, it is clear that Robitaille was not playing at the level he had hoped.
“I think Luc realizes, with what’s gone on last year and this year, that this is the time,” said Miller. “He’s accomplished so much. He’s won the Stanley Cup he wanted, although it was with Detroit and not with the Kings, unfortunately. Highest-scoring left wing in the history of the game, all-time goal scoring leader for the Kings…so it’s not like there were some other things he wanted to accomplish, except win a Cup with the Kings. So I guess it was time and in his own mind, it was time.”
“During the lockout, I knew I was coming back for one more year for sure,” said Robitaille. “I felt too good physically to not come back. It’s a decision that I felt sometimes throughout the season and even at the beginning of the year. I really wanted to come back and I felt really good physically.”
It was not an easy decision for him, but his wife Stacia supported and helped him.
“It’s never easy, but I’d call it a common-sense decision where I just know it’s time,” Robitaille explained. “Something my wife and I have been talking about for awhile. I just know it’s time.”
“It was definitely in the back of my mind,” he added. “A couple of weeks ago is when we talked and it’s definitely a decision we made together. It’s me who’s playing, but she’s made so many sacrifices throughout the years. It was something we did together.”
One of the reasons Robitaille decided to announce his retirement on April 11, 2006, was because the Kings’ chances to make the playoffs were now all but gone.
“All along, I thought we were going to be in the playoffs, so I wasn’t going to announce it until August,” he explained. “But now, knowing that we’re probably not going to be in the playoffs unless things go our way, and I’ll do everything possible for that, I just felt it was the right thing to do now.”
“I don’t think it would be fair to my family, my friends or my fans to just go out if we don’t make the playoffs and then announce a week from now that I’m going to retire,” he added. “That didn’t feel right. Sometimes things just happen in life, and that’s kind of the way it happened.”
Robitaille also stressed that the fact that he had been a healthy scratch for three games prior to their 4-2 loss against Anaheim on April 8 had no bearing on his decision.
“It had nothing to do with what happened to me last week, that I can honestly say,” said Robitaille. “I remember playing in Montreal this year, I told my Mom ‘you’d better come. This is probably my last game in Montreal.’”
The Kings played at Montreal on December 3, 2005.
A Dream Come True
Luc Robitaille is living every child’s dream. The aspiration to play in the big leagues and to score goals is the definition of who Luc is. Luc has a child-like love/passion to be on the ice, to be a good teammate, to create a positive and fun environment around him, but most of all he enjoys scoring goals.
— Marty McSorley
When you observe Robitaille in practice and after games, you usually see a big smile on his face, you will often hear him laughing and joking with his teammates and with the media. To be sure, he seems to enjoy what he is doing now as much as he did when he was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie.
“Off the ice, every single player, especially young guys, should look at Luc,” said former Kings defenseman and team captain Mattias Norstrom. “The way he prepares himself coming to the rink. That’s the way he’s been doing it for the last nineteen years. You wonder sometimes if it’s Luc’s first year because he comes to the rink with a big smile and most times, he leaves with a big smile. He really has a love for the game.”
He loved the game so much that he made sure that he gave it his all in every one of them.
“Everyday, I gave everything I had,” said Robitaille. “I wasn’t great every day, but I know I made sure I was ready for every game. There was a lot of games where I didn’t play the way I wanted to. So by me going away, I have no regrets because I know every single day of my career, I made sure was ready for the next game. In that way, I can walk with a lot of pride in the fact that I gave everything I could to this game every day. I know in my heart that every day, I did my best.”
“I think that’s what it’s about,” added Robitaille. “When you have an opportunity to do your dream, for any of us, I think that’s the most important thing to never forget. That’s probably one of the proudest things about me that I know that I did every day.”
Indeed, and it all goes back to that dream.
“It has been a great, great run for me,” said Robitaille. “I was a little kid who had a dream, and I got to live my dream and now I think it’s time to go. I love this game so much, and I wouldn’t want to hurt it. I’ve been living my dream. It’s been something very special.”
“I remember looking at a map, seeing how far Los Angeles was [from his hometown, Montreal, Quebec],” added Robitaille. “And now this is my home, it’s where I’m going to live.”
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