Monday, May 21, 2012

Behind every great sports team is a another great team that keeps the machine moving. Former Los Angeles Kings sniper Luc Robitaille, an NHL Hall of Famer, does his part to keep the wheels greased and the business blades sharp as the Kings’ president of business operations.
This week we flash back to 1988 and look at Jim Murray's observations of the fresh-faced kid from Montreal.



So Far, He's Kept His Teeth, and Also His Cool

    You could tell right away Luc Robitaille couldn't be a very successful hockey player. First of all, he has all his teeth. In other sports, the legs may be first to go. Or the eyes. With hockey, it's the teeth.
    Next, his face didn't look like a wall motto. Hockey players look, in poor light, as if they have "There's No Place Like Home" stitched on their physiognomies. Some guys have so many stitches they look like quilts with skates. Why football players wear face masks and hockey players don't, nobody has ever been able to figure. First of all, football players don't carry sticks. Second, they are not slapping a three-inch hard-rubber projectile around the ice at 100 mph, often at eye level.
    Hockey players never even wore helmets until the skull fractures reached epidemic levels. There is no other sport except auto racing in which head-on collisions occur at closing speeds of 40 mph and more.
It is the only game in which attempted homicide is labeled "misconduct."
    It is a game best played in a terrible temper. Luc Robitaille doesn't have any discernible temper. Luc Robitaille not only has all his hair and teeth and eyes, he has and keeps his cool. He actually has a working sense of humor.
    He'd have to have. He plays for the Kings.
    Luc Robitaille was not the kind of player you nicknamed "The Rocket" or "Boom Boom" when he first came on the ice. He was slow. He was small. He was polite. He could skate some, but he looked like a better prospect for the Ice Follies than the Broad Street Bullies.
    He was perfect for the Kings. The Kings are in the National Hockey League but they manage not to let that spoil their day. The Kings play their own game, which is kind of a combination of ice dancing and roller derby. They are the Fricks and Fracks of pro hockey. They have exactly 10,297 fans who come to every game and they never get in the Stanley Cup playoffs or at least past the first round.
    Luc Robitaille always wanted to play for the Kings, which should give you an idea how lightly his skills were evaluated. Even the Kings didn't pick him till 171st, and when you wait around that long, it's either the Kings or the post office.
    Luc (rhymes with "luck" in the French original but is most often pronounced by American fans "Luke" as in Cool Hand) was born and raised in Montreal, where there was a real body-checking, go-in-the-corners, stick-in-the-face team known to the world as "Les Canadiens" but to its own fans as "Habitants" or "Home Boys." But Luc wanted to play in the Alpine fastnesses of Hollywood and on the Kings. He thought they needed more help than the Home Boys. He was right.
    Hockey players usually look like something the Mounties are after. Luc looks like something the movies are after. He could make a nice living teaching the tango. When he first came to town, they didn't know whether to direct him to the King line or Chorus Line. He didn't look as if he should play any game that couldn't be played in a tuxedo.
    On ice, he was almost like an Eddie Stanky. He couldn't skate, he couldn't shoot, all he could do was beat you. Every time he came to camp, he lost out to a flashier player. Then, he would go back to junior hockey and set scoring and assist records. His first year at Hull, he ripped in 32 goals and 53 assists. Sent back, he got 155 goals and 94 assists. Back-checked again, he rapped in 68 goals and 123 assists.
    Suddenly, someone remembered that Bobby Orr showed up looking like a lost choirboy. They gave Robitaille a major league uniform — and he went out and became rookie of the year. Nobody on the Kings had ever done that. He slammed in 45 goals and 39 assists.
    Luc Jeanmarie Robitaille could skate almost before he could walk. He ate with his skates on, he slept with his skates on, he went to school with his skates on. He was on more ice than a polar bear. Wayne Gretzky may have fallen out of bed with the ability to score three goals a game, Luc Robitaille had to work at it.
    People think the National Hockey League consists of Wayne Gretzky and 200 guys named Jean-Claude and 150 goons called "Tiger." But the future of the game may belong more to the unassuming young (22) stick-handler who plays left wing for the Kings. Luc Robitaille sees a hockey rink the way John Unitas used to see a football field. He can spot the open man or the defense out of position two blue lines away. "He's got a great instinct for the flow of the game," one of his ex-coaches once said. "It's not instinct, it's hard work," Robitaille says.
    His balance on ice is the envy of a lot of players. "You can't knock him off the puck," his mentor, Marcel Dionne, one of the first to spot Luc's luck around the net, has said.
    Someone once said, it's what you learn after you think you know it all that counts. Last year, the team sent four players to a lady skating coach in New York. Three of them went through the motions, ridiculed the whole program. Luc Robitaille practised as if he were getting ready for the gold dance pairs. "She had me skating on one leg, skating on one edge, then the other, practising jumps, turns. I did it for four months. The guys would laugh at me. But it's marvelous what it can do to your timing and balance."
    He may be able to eat corn-on-the-cob and sleep with his teeth in his mouth instead of a glass, his face may not look as if it's been zippered on, he may not be too proud to take ice ballet lessons but when he's got the puck Luc Robitaille doesn't look like a matinee idol to goalies. He looks like something that would eat the net. With them in it.

Jim Murray Memorial Foundation | P.O. Box 995 | La Quinta | CA | 92247

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