Commentary

Lucky Luc was consummate teammate

Updated: November 5, 2009, 5:28 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Luc Robitaille's father was there at that first Los Angeles Kings training camp more than a quarter of a century ago.

He sat up in the stands away from the others and didn't bother his son much.

Robitaille was cut early on in that camp and ended up spending two more years in junior before making the Kings.

Years later, Robitaille would ask his father why he had come all that way just to watch a few workouts and scrimmages. His father said he wanted to see whether his son would be OK, and he assured his son that he knew right away Robitaille was going to fit in just fine.

Robitaille chuckled while telling the story because, well, 19 NHL seasons, 668 goals and 1,394 points later, he has a ticket to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and maybe his dad has the benefit of hindsight.

But maybe what Robitaille's father saw in those first, hesitant days on the West Coast wasn't so much that his son was going to be an NHL star but that this was a good place for his son, a home.

Sometimes you'll hear someone described as having "gone Hollywood," and it's never a positive thing. But with Robitaille, the fact he went Hollywood and, for the most part, was never anything but Hollywood from that first training camp on, is spoken in the most reverential tones. It's been that way pretty much since the beginning.

Even now, on the eve of his induction into the Hall, the most prolific scoring left winger in the game is all about Los Angeles and, more specifically, all about the Los Angeles Kings.

"He's always been a very popular guy. Lucky Luc. The nickname goes with him," veteran defenseman and longtime teammate Rob Blake told ESPN.com this week.

Robitaille was already an established star when Blake joined the Kings full time in 1990, but Robitaille made the youngster from Simcoe, Ontario, feel right at home. A Southern California lifer himself, Blake said Robitaille has set himself apart from virtually every other hockey figure. Go to a Hollywood party or event, and if Luc Robitaille is there, people will know who he is.

"Put him in a room with 50 people for 30 minutes, and those 50 people will leave telling stories about Luc Robitaille," Blake said. "They all take a part of something from one of Luc's stories."

When Robitaille made the Kings out of training camp in 1986, legendary Kings center Marcel Dionne asked him what he wanted to do now that he was in Los Angeles. Did he want to see the sights, meet the stars? No, he wanted to play hockey, Robitaille told him. OK, then, Dionne responded, Robitaille could move in with him and his family.

"I never went anywhere," Robitaille said, recalling the steady routine of going from practice to Dionne's home to games and back again.

That Robitaille was there at all remains one of those stories of perseverance and belief. It's not that Robitaille couldn't skate, it's just that he didn't do it nearly as well as many players around him. But, said good friend and former junior linemate Pat Brisson, Robitaille was stubborn and surprisingly tough.

Blake likewise recalled a deeply competitive player beneath that happy-go-lucky exterior. He remembered how, even in practice, Robitaille had to score. Even if his turn during a drill appeared to be over, he would fish the puck out of the corner and still rip it into the net, often to the consternation of netminders such as Kelly Hrudey.

Pat Quinn was the coach in Los Angeles at the time, and he recalled looking beyond the skating to see "a great brain in there."

Pure speed? No. But Quinn said he still thinks Robitaille got from the corner to the net as quickly as any player, a testament to his anticipation and that big hockey brain. After being sent back to junior and the Hull Olympiques, coached by future NHL coach Pat Burns, Robitaille tore up the junior ranks. Playing on a line with small but skilled Guy Rouleau and Brisson, Robitaille was a force. He scored 191 points in his final junior season in 1985-86 and was named junior player of the year. The QMJHL later named a trophy after him, awarded to the team that scores the most goals.

People who know Robitaille talk glowingly about the respect he shows people. It is reflected in the way he remembers a man most people do not know about or have forgotten about. "I owe my entire career to one man," Robitaille said.

Not his father or his coaches or friends, but a man named Alex Smart, a former scout for the Kings who was based in Ottawa and watched Robitaille and saw past the awkward skating strides and saw something else, call it heart or potential. Quinn recalled Smart touting Robitaille at team meetings long before he made the team.

"He was the only scout that ever talked to me," Robitaille said. "He believed in me. I think he saw my passion for the game."

Smart passed away some years ago, but on Monday, Robitaille will remember him as a singular figure in his Hall of Fame career.

Robitaille scored 45 goals in his rookie season and was named rookie of the year. By the time his sophomore season rolled around, Dionne was gone and Robitaille moved in with defenseman Steve Duchesne (another Smart prodigy) and Brisson.

If the distance between Hull, Quebec, and Hollywood seems vast -- and in many ways, culturally, linguistically, geographically, it is just that -- Robitaille has always seemed to understand the distance is minuscule in the ways that matter.

Take the car.

Brisson recalled the day he arrived in Los Angeles, Oct. 15, 1987. Robitaille picked him up at the airport. The Kings played the Boston Bruins that night, and the two met Ray Bourque after the game.

Just starting on a career that would see him become one of the game's most powerful player agents, Brisson admittedly didn't have much when he moved to the West Coast full time. What he did have included a 1971 Toyota Corolla that could be started only by jamming a hockey stick into the carburetor. But whenever Robitaille was out of town, the keys to his new Mustang convertible were always placed in Brisson's hands. When you're 20-something in Los Angeles, that is the true mark of friendship.

Even now, the two still laugh about that car.

"It was worth about $100," Brisson said.

"We should have kept it as a souvenir," Robitaille joked. "Pat and I have always been real friends. You only have so many real friends in your life."

Even with the language barrier, Robitaille soon became a favorite with the fans.

"His personality was very helpful. He was so good to people," Brisson said. "He was just bubbly and happy-go-lucky."

Although they soon found themselves hanging out with producers and other entertainment people, Brisson said there was never any putting on of airs with Robitaille. "He was the glue in terms of his character, his personality, and he's still the same," Brisson said.

Take the sad case of Rouleau. The three junior linemates kept in close contact. When Robitaille discovered Rouleau was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor, he invited Rouleau to stay with his family in L.A. while Rouleau underwent experimental tests at UCLA's medical center. Robitaille also called on friends, including Blake, to help raise money to cover Rouleau's medical costs, helping to organize charity golf tournaments. Rouleau died a number of years ago.

Robitaille would play eight seasons in Los Angeles, including the team's high-water moment in 1993, when the Kings went to their first Stanley Cup finals with Wayne Gretzky at the helm.

There was a three-year walkabout in which Robitaille went first to Pittsburgh and then to the New York Rangers before he returned for another four-year run in L.A. He yearned for a chance to win a Cup and signed with Detroit in the 2001 offseason. Robitaille took on a lesser role with the talented Red Wings, but nonetheless made significant contributions. Playing on a line with Hall of Famer Igor Larionov and Tomas Holmstrom, Robitaille helped propel the Wings past hated foe Colorado in a seven-game nail-biter in the 2002 Western Conference finals before dispatching Carolina in five games to give Robitaille his long-awaited Stanley Cup ring.

Robitaille would play one more season in Detroit before being drawn back, inexorably perhaps, to close out the circle in Los Angeles. The season after the lockout, Robitaille knew his time was up.

"You've got to be realistic about life," he recalled. "That last year, my back was really bothering me. It was hard to get out of bed."

And yet, what makes Robitaille such an interesting case is that he wasn't done. Isn't done.

A year after retiring, he was named president of business operations for the Kings. Unlike contemporaries such as Hall of Fame classmate (and former teammate) Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and others, Robitaille finds himself in the trenches on the business side, trying to build and reinforce the bonds between a hockey team and the community.

He had seen how organizations such as the Rangers and Detroit Red Wings had worked, how they interacted with the community, how the hockey operations and business departments worked with one goal, and he wanted to bring that philosophy to Los Angeles. It has been both humbling and exciting for Robitaille.

Unlike a player, who can put aside a bad game and prepare for another the next night, Robitaille said he is learning that the implications of a bad business decision might take months to correct. "You have to be a lot more patient," he said.

And it comes as little surprise to Blake that Robitaille has embraced the business side of the game in his second career. "He's selling the Kings, and he's selling the NHL," Blake said.

Who better to do that in L.A. than Robitaille, Blake asked? Team president Tim Leiweke agreed. When Leiweke took over 14 years ago, it didn't take him long to realize that Robitaille was more than just a player. "He was an icon," Leiweke told ESPN.com.

He said it has taken time for Robitaille to learn the business models, spreadsheets and jargon -- but, he quipped, Robitaille has gotten there faster than he might have made it from one end of the ice to the other in his playing days. "He's a pretty quick study. He gets it," Leiweke said.

Importance to the franchise? Gretzky helped turn the Kings franchise around when he arrived from Edmonton in the early 1990s, but Robitaille has had a more lasting impact on the organization than any other player in the Kings' history, Leiweke said.

His uniform might now be a suit and tie, but Robitaille sometimes finds himself down along the glass during a game. He watches the players as they whiz by, peering at the expressions on their faces, and sees what he looked like for the better part of two decades.

Just goes to show that for some people it doesn't matter. Hollywood or Hull, you can't take the hockey out of the boy.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.