Robitaille wants one for the fans
LOS ANGELES -- He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 1984 with the 171st overall pick.
He was, in fact, drafted after a famous baseball pitcher.
When he arrived for his first training camp, he spoke almost no English and was given little chance of becoming an NHLer.
And yet Luc Robitaille has been a virtual constant with this organization ever since, a kind of Greek chorus first as a player and more recently as the team's president of business operations, chronicling the infrequent peaks and too many valleys of a franchise that until now seemed destined never to earn a championship.
"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," Robitaille said, joking with reporters Tuesday.
No man is an organization, but if it was so, then Robitaille would be the Kings: their fortunes, his fortunes, inexorably linked. And while he won his only Stanley Cup as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, it's hard to imagine, if the Kings manage to win one more game this spring to bring home the franchise's first-ever Cup, anyone appreciating it as much as Robitaille.
"One of the main reasons I wanted to be involved with this team is I wanted to have the opportunity to be part of the team if and when it happens to win a Stanley Cup here," he said. "We're close, we still got a ways to go, but it's certainly something if we can get that one more victory it's going to be very special because it's never been done before.
"It's like I told Mike Richards when he came last year: 'You know the cool thing about here is if you can help us do something very special, it's something that's never been done before. You're going to be the first one to do it.' To me as an athlete it's very, very special."
Many pieces of fabric bind Robitaille, this team and this community as they stand on the verge of a historic accomplishment.
Before this spring, the team had appeared in only one Stanley Cup final, in 1993, and Robitaille was a big part of that Kings team that lost to Montreal in five games.
"He was the one guy everyone said that I would hate," Barry Melrose, the coach of that team and longtime ESPN analyst, said Tuesday. "Really, it was the other way around. He's one of my favorite guys that I ever coached."
Melrose said he's not surprised at all that Robitaille has parlayed his Hall of Fame playing career into a stellar career as a front-office executive.
"Luc was going to be a success no matter what he was going to do," he said. "I still think he'd like be on the hockey side and I'm not sure that won't happen sometime."
Pat Brisson, one of the game's top agents, came to visit Robitaille and Steve Duchesne in March 1987. He was to stay with his former junior teammates from Hull (now Gatineau), Quebec, for two weeks and ended up staying six. He was back the following October and has never left.
Not long after Brisson and Robitaille worked together building ice complexes in California, looking to fill a void as the team's popularity surged after Wayne Gretzky's arrival in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Often Robitaille would arrive at business meetings after practice but he always had a point to make, an idea to float.
As Robitaille's career wound down after the lockout -- he played his final two seasons back in Los Angeles -- Tim Leiweke, the president and CEO of the team's ownership group AEG, made plans for Robitaille to join the front office.
While Robitaille's duties are separate from the team's hockey operations department, they are inexorably linked.
Selling the Kings' fan base on what GM Dean Lombardi and assistant GM Ron Hextall were building was as important as the draft picks and trades that went into the formation of this record-setting team.
Robitaille has played a significant role in both catering to the longstanding Kings fan base, those hard-core fans who date back to expansion days or the "Miracle on Manchester" and the Gretzky era, but also cultivating the new fan base that is crucial to continued growth in a competitive marketplace like Los Angeles.
"We know we have 2.5 million hockey fans [in Southern California]. We know they're not all L.A. Kings fans but we're trying to reach them all," Robitaille said.
We visited Robitaille and the Kings in December shortly before head coach Terry Murray was fired and replaced by Darryl Sutter. Robitaille was candid about how important making a statement in the playoffs was to a fan base that had been patient but whose patience couldn't be counted on in perpetuity.
"For 47 years we've tried really hard [to win a Cup]. But let's say for the last 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 to be patient with us, we're going to rebuild; 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," Robitaille said.
"The cool thing about it is today is we can say, see, we didn't lie," he added with a laugh.
Nothing compares to winning a Stanley Cup as a player.
But if the Kings are able to complete this journey with one more win, Robitaille will enjoy a special place in the celebrations.
"I call it chapeau, that's French for hat. It's a different hat for him," Brisson told ESPN.com Tuesday. "There's no better guy. You cheer for him."
If the Kings do win, "it's a very big achievement for hockey here. It's a major statement. That's what it means to him."
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