'I just wanted to play hockey'

LAT photoI went down Saturday night to observe Kings Nation gather at Staples Center to honor Luc Robitaille, one of the city's most likable, if not widely known, sports stars. His #20 jersey was raised into the rafters by his sons as hockey Hall of Famers and ex-teammates applauded him on the ice. The current Kings and Phoenix Coyotes banged their sticks in the sport's traditional sign of respect. Way up in the press box, even the visiting scouts stood beaming with big grins. That's what happens when you come out of nowhere to become the highest-scoring left wing (one of the sport's five positions) in NHL history, while still playing with the infectious joy of a kid on the village pond back home in Quebec.

Of course most L.A. sports fans don't follow hockey, and even fewer of them care about the Kings, so Robitaille's story isn't well known. He was an improbable star. The Kings took him last in the draft, a kid who spoke no English and couldn't skate very well. But he burned with a desire to play and made himself better. He got to the Kings as a 20-year-old in 1986, roomed with fellow Quebecois Marcel Dionne, and began putting the rubber in the back of the net. As a rookie he scored 45 goals; for context, it has now been fourteen years since any King scored as many, and that was Robitaille's career-high 63.

The kid who couldn't skate played 19 seasons (and lost one to the NHL lockout.) The front-office twice let him go, and regretted it both times. He was the favorite of Kings fans, who filled The Forum and later Staples Center with chants of Luuuuuc! whenever he scored. No one signed as many autographs as he did or chatted so freely with fans. He owned ice and roller hockey rinks here for awhile. I've posted before about his charming tour of Los Angeles with the Stanley Cup a few years ago — since the Kings could never bring a Cup to L.A., he rented a bus, loaded in his family and friends, and did it himself. In 2004, he became an American.

LAT photoIn a nice touch, on Saturday night the team invited more than fifty season ticket holders onto the ice to form a receiving line of extended hands for Robitaille and the other NHL greats to pass through as they were introduced, one by one, to the standing-room-only crowd. Wayne Gretzky was there, the commissioner, Luc's parents and wife and sons. There were many joking allusions to the notion that the little French kid couldn't skate, and to his joyous desire to score goals. "I'm open!" were his favorite words on the ice, teammate Derek Armstrong quipped. "Every time I watched Luc Robitaille play he reminded me why I love this game so much," said Barry Melrose, the only coach to ever take the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals.

The night was a reunion of sorts for the small but loyal Kings community. Pete Demers, the longtime trainer who was not retained this season, got one of the biggest cheers when he came onto the ice. Former owner Bruce McNall, who brought Gretzky to L.A., got a nice hand. When Robitaille finally got the microphone, just about the time the night's puck was supposed to be dropped, he mentioned that he barely spoke first his first two years in town: "I was so shy." This night, he had no problem keeping the entire arena on its feet for 25 minutes.

He looked over at Gretzky: "I got to play with my idol." He thanked Rogie Vachon, the team's best goalie ever, for taking care of him as a rookie — and teaching him to play golf. Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson was "the greatest guy I ever met." Robitaille told tales on clubhouse pranksters Larry Playfair and Marty McSorley, who inspired fear with his antics: "He had no limits, trust me." He had special thanks for the enforcers and muscle who protected him from hockey's goons. Jay Miller "made us feel so big on the ice." Jay Wells "took me under his wing and told the big guys to stop pushing me around." Even Bernie Nicholls, a lightweight, drew praise: "My first fight, he jumped in to save me — literally."

AP photoRobitaille gave shout outs to former teammate and general manager Dave Taylor, who was back home dealing with the passing of his father, and to ailing sportscaster Stu Nahan. With all that concluded, he addressed his gallery in the upper altitudes of Staples Center, who interrupted with shouts of "thank you" and "Luuuuc!." He told them that he heard every chant through the years, and that they were a big reason he could say "I lived my dream." The bottom line: "I just wanted to play hockey."

In a media gaggle in the Chick Hearn Press Room during the game that followed, Robitaille spoke in English and French about the thrill of being honored in this way. But, he said, he's ready to get on with the life of a retired player. He works with AEG, the Kings' parent company, and he and his wife Stacia founded Shelter for Serenity to help the displaced of New Orleans. "I'm just going to have fun living the rest of my life," he said. Typically, he also thanked the reporters: "Thank you for coming. Thanks for the last twenty years."

After the ice was cleared, the Kings and Coyotes played a game. It started an hour later than usual and a half-hour later than planned, but the Kings got off to an early lead on a dazzling short-handed goal by the fans' newest favorite, a marvelous Slovenian rookie named Anze Kopitar. (See David Davis's post about Ahn-jay below.) The Kings took a 2-1 lead into the third period on some heroics by the goalie, 39-year-old Sean Burke, playing his first game in an L.A. jersey. A veteran of many Stanley Cup playoffs, he had played only in the minors this year, but in 43 minutes Burke looked sharper than all the goofs the Kings have sent out so far this season. It looked like the making of a nice story line — then disaster.

With sixteen minutes left, Burke's legs cramped up and he had to come out. This put Japanese-born rookie Yutaka Fukufuji in only his fourth NHL game. It's hard to tell who was more excited, the Japanese media contingent in the press box or the struggling Coyotes. Phoenix players began playing with extra jump in their step, the Kings' confidence visibly sagged, and the Coyotes quickly scored twice on goals Fukufuji should have stopped. That was that.

Afterward, most of the Kings hid in the training room, leaving Fukufuji slumped in a corner of the clubhouse rubbing his eyes while reporters from Rafu Shimpo, JiJi Press, Nikkan Sports, Tokyo Shimbun and JATV pressed in and gingerly asked how he felt. (I can't understand Japanese, but by the blank stare and extremely soft whisper, I can say he didn't feel very good.) Later, Burke came out to explain he had not played in a month, had traveled across the country twice that week and had simply become dehydrated.

When Coach Marc Crawford finally met the beat reporters after 11:30 (past most of their deadlines), he emphasized that Fukufuji was not to blame. The Kings organization has low expectations of the young goalie — he's a fill-in pressed into service solely because of injuries — and Crawford made it clear the Kings lost because their scorers didn't take advantage of openings. "We obviously had a problem with our poise and our conviction to win," Crawford said, his jaw rather clenched. "You could tell our team was tense." Class move, but it probably didn't make Fukufuji feel any better.

Top photos: Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times; online slide show

Bottom photo: Branimir Kvartuc/AP

January 22, 2007 6:31 PM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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