Long road to glory for Robitaille
CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency
LOS ANGELES - If there is a guy who can appreciate what is happening with the Los Angeles Kings right now, what being on the cusp of the franchise's first Stanley Cup means to the franchise, to the city and to its long-time core of fans, it is Luc Robitaille.
The Hall of Famer is the Kings president of business operations and alternate governor, at 45 looking all the part of the distinguished businessman in a dark suit and open-necked white shirt.
He showed up here as an 18-year-old from the Hull Olympiques, a ninth-round draft pick who couldn't speak English.
Nineteen NHL seasons later -- including 14 with the Kings and a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002 -- he ended the most productive career ever for an NHL left winger with 668 goals and 726 assists.
He had another 58 goals in the playoffs.
He said Tuesday having a chance to win the Cup with the Kings would be fulfilling, even though he jokingly said he still had a bone to pick with the club after having to sit around for hours at the 1984 draft waiting for some team to call his name.
Couldn't skate well enough to be an NHLer, they said back then.
Even the Kings waited, taking a guy who would wind up being a pretty good pitcher ahead of Robitaille.
"It's very special," Robitaille said. "No team wanted me. Keep that in mind. Even the Kings, I have to question them because they drafted Tom Glavine before me even though he said he'd never play hockey.
"Your first team, if you're here long enough right off the bat, it always becomes kind of something special. You're in the NHL. For me to win as a King ... when I had the opportunity to be involved with the team, post-playing, I wanted to be here to stick it through to win a Cup here. I can't even describe to you what it would mean to me because it is certainly something that will be very, very special."
In his current role, Robitaille has been the driving force behind growing the Kings' presence both among fans and in the business community. The club has had record revenues on his watch.
He said the club's surveys have shown of the 16 million people in Southern California, 2.5 million are hockey fans. Robitaille works now to make them Kings fans. He wants to get the number up to three million. Back in November, the Kings had an opportunity to have the stage to themselves with their fellow tenants at the Staples Center, the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, not playing because of the lockout.
"The difference, in November when we were the only game in town, we flat out sucked. We weren't scoring goals, we were losing," Robitaille said. "But we found a way to hang in there."
With the Clippers and Lakers both having flamed out of the playoffs, the Kings once again have the stage to themselves. Their first championship would reward some long-suffering Kings fans, who have hung in there since 1967 and have hung in there since the club's early struggles this season when so much was expected of a promising team.
Robitaille was part of the group that decided to stick with the kids -- Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick -- and build from the ground up, although it meant there would be growing pains. He also was part of the management team that decided to make the bold moves and trade for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
"For 45 years we've tried really hard," Robitaille said. "But let's say for the past five years we tried a different way: OK, we're going to keep all of our young guys. Our fans suddenly had to be very patient. It's very hard in North America to tell fans, 'be patient with us. we're going to rebuild,' because you're saying you're going to lose. You're basically saying in a nice way you're going to lose. We told them that and we found a way to make our fans believers.
"The cool thing about it is today we can say, see? We didn't lie. We didn't know if it was really going to happen."
Robitaille got his Cup as a player with the Red Wings, but said this has a completely different vibe to it.
"This is totally different. It was a very old team in Detroit. The one thing that is probably the same is the sacrifice of each player. Each player knew his role, each player knew exactly what needed to be done to help the team win. You kind of feel this about this team.
"That's what Mike Richards really brought into our team. It doesn't matter if Mike Richards scores. it's what he does on the ice that's special every shift. You look at Anze, Anze might not get a scoring chance or might not get a goal, but he's one of our best players defensively. He even has a lot of grit into his game now. That's one thing we were missing in the past."
Robitaille has been there, for the most part, along with the fans.
Now they're here, back together, one win away.
"We're one victory away from winning a Stanley Cup in a city I love, with the team I love," Robitaille said. "It's pretty special."