But on the eve of his jersey retirement with the Los Angeles Kings, the former all-star winger was all laughs as he fondly reminisced about his 19 years in the NHL, 14 of them in L.A. He vividly recalled his reaction after the Kings drafted him in 1984.
“I remember looking at a map and seeing how far L.A. was from where I was born,” the Montreal native said Friday.
Barely a word of English in his arsenal, it didn’t take long for Robitaille to know he was far away from home after joining the Kings in his rookie season in 1986-87 following three stellar years with the Quebec League’s Hull Olympiques.
“I knew right away it wasn’t Montreal. Like they say, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” the 40-year-old said with a hearty laugh.
A then-20-year-old Robitaille didn’t let the Hollywood backdrop affect his play, scoring 45 goals and 84 points in 79 games – earning him the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. But he couldn’t help but notice his surreal surroundings.
“I remember one of the first celebrities I met, Chad Lowe came to see us after a game with his brother Rob,” said Robitaille. “And Melissa Gilbert was with them. I was a big fan of Little House on the Prairie. She came in the dressing room with those guys, and she saw every guy walking around naked in the dressing room and I’ll never forget, she stepped backward about five feet so fast.
“We were like, ‘Hey, that’s the girl from Little House on the Prairie.”‘
Robitaille also had to put up with the antics in his own dressing room, veterans such as Larry Playfair, Bob Bourne and Mark Hardy playing practical jokes on him in the early years.
“Every day those guys would seem to find something to do to one of us young guys,” said Robitaille. “I remember looking for my shoes once and they were stuck on the ceiling with cement glue. We couldn’t pull them off the ceiling.”
Then there’s the old sewing of the sleeves on the jersey.
“You go to put on your jersey and you’d almost break your wrist,” Robitaille said. “They’d cut your socks or nail your shoes to the ground. It was so funny, you don’t really see that anymore. But in those days those guys would spend hours figuring out new tricks.”
The biggest trick of all for Robitaille was making the NHL, let alone starring in it. He was a ninth-round pick of the Kings, all the way down to 171st overall. Today the draft is only seven rounds long.
“He was a great junior but the setback was that he couldn’t skate, or at least not enough to play in the NHL,” former Kings GM Rogie Vachon said Friday. “That’s why everyone kept passing on him that day at the draft.
“Finally I said, ‘When are we going to take this guy?’ I had seem him play in junior. At some point I said, ‘OK, that’s it, we’re taking him now.’ And I think it was a pretty good move.”
The knock that Robitaille couldn’t skate was answered in style: highest scoring left-winger in NHL history with 668 goals.
“Every day I was trying to prove people wrong,” said Robitaille, now an executive with the Kings’ parent company, Anschutz Entertainment Group.
The all-time franchise leader in goals scored (557), Robitaille will join Vachon, Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Wayne Gretzky as the only Kings players to have their jersey retired.
“He’s wonderful kid,” Vachon said of him. “He has a very nice family, he was a great teammate and always very good with the young guys. Just a very, very classy guy.”
Vachon and Gretzky, whose Phoenix Coyotes provide the opposition Saturday night, will take part in the ceremony as well as Kings alumni Bob Berry, Jimmy Carson, Mike Donnelly, Steve Duchesne, Daryl Evans, Stephane Fiset, Jim Fox, Garry Galley, Butch Goring, Bob Kudelski, Jari Kurri, Marty McSorley, Barry Melrose, Jay Miller, Bernie Nicholls, Larry Robinson, Jay Wells and the jokester Playfair.
“I think it’s going to be a pretty emotional night,” said Robitaille, who retired after last season. “I’ve put a lot into the game for the last 35 years of my life. It’s really the ending of it. I’m looking forward to it because it’s been such a great ride.”
His next honour might be the Hall of Fame in a few years. He had 1,394 career points (668-726) in 1,431 regular-season games with Los Angeles, Detroit, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers. Robitaille also ranks second all-time in Kings history in games played (1,077), second in points (1,154) and fourth in assists (597).
He never won a Cup as a King but came close in 1993 when Los Angeles lost to Montreal.
“The Cup final in L.A. was definitely the highlight of playing here,” said Robitaille.
“Winning the Cup in Detroit (in 2002) toward the end of my career and really appreciating what it meant was really special too,” he added.
And playing with Robinson and Gretzky, two players he idolized, was also huge.
“I think for the first year or two I barely said a word to them because I was so intimidated,” said Robitaille. “Now I look back, I feel so fortunate to have met and played with my idols.”