Luc Robitaille is one of those people in life who, upon meeting or speaking with them, you find it really hard to believe they’ve ever endured a bad day.
When your nickname is ‘Lucky Luc’ and you’re always smiling like a guy who lives in California and loves his job, sleepless nights just don’t seem like part of the equation.
But while speaking with THN for a special issue we’re releasing in the fall that ranks the best players of all-time by position, Robitaille – No. 7 among left wingers – revealed that, while he was living out a dream in his early days with the Kings, his mind wasn’t always as calm as his demeanor might suggest.
“I was the kind of player where I was never good enough,” Robitaille said. “Every game, whether things were great or not, I always wanted to be better and get better. I overanalyzed what I did. Even though I always seemed to be the happy guy, personally I was never happy with what happened, I always wanted to do better.
“I loved every second of it, but I was really hard on myself, I was always pushing to be better.”
That’s how you end up winning the 1987 Calder Trophy with a 45-goal season three years after you were drafted in the ninth round, because nobody thought you could skate.
For Robitaille, proving himself was all about practice habits and never mentally letting himself off the hook, even if it meant dealing with a mind that sometimes swirled in unwanted directions.
“For sure there are days you get caught up and the game is in your head,” he said. “Those days are not easy.”
Robitaille’s method for improvement also included soaking in whatever he could in terms of not just watching other players, but devouring any information he could read about them, be it in a biography or an article from a magazine or newspaper.
All the while, he never lost sight of his strengths and limitations.
“If a guy was skating like Paul Coffey or Mike Modano, I knew I couldn’t do that, but there’s always something you can pick up from them that can help you be a better player,” said the Montreal native. “So I’ve always studied all the other players just to try and pick up some of the good things they were doing and see if I could put that into my game.”
The difference between Robitaille’s internal and external settings wasn’t the only contradiction in his career. He may not have been a fast skater, but he worked on being quick – honing those first three steps – basically everyday of his hockey-playing life. You don’t get to 668 goals – the most ever by a left winger – without beating people to loose pucks in front of the net and in the corner.
His game and body also underwent an evolution following a frank talk with his coach 10 years into his career. After two unsatisfactory seasons with the Rangers, Robitaille returned to the Kings for the 1997-98 season. He was hampered by an undetected hernia that year and came face-to-face with some harsh realities in the off-season.
“Larry Robinson, our coach, said, ‘You’re going to have to change your game a little bit or the game is passing you by,’” Robitaille recalled.
That was all the incentive he needed. After hiring a trainer, Robitaille packed on some muscle, playing the final half of his career at around 208 pounds, roughly 10 pounds heavier than he had previously been skating at.
The Stanley Cup that eluded Robitaille and the Kings in the 1993 final eventually found him in 2002, when he was a member of a stacked Detroit Red Wings club. Finding his spot on that team amongst a whole bunch of other guys also destined for the Hall of Fame required additional adaptation.
“When I went to Detroit, I think the adjustment for me was, I knew I was there to win, but it’s never easy to go from playing 20 minutes a game to like 13 or 14,” he said. “It took me, probably, a good four or five months to understand and accept it.”
Robitaille said it was certainly worth it in the end, when he got to hoist the only Cup of his playing career. Now he’s eyeing another championship, this time with the franchise he’s intrinsically tied to.
Since May of 2007, Robitaille has been the Kings’ president of business operations, meaning he oversees all revenue-based aspects of the organization. Typically, when former NHLers stay in the game it tends to be in a coaching or player evaluation capacity, so chalk this one up to another interesting Robitaille contradiction.
When asked if he could see himself shuffling over to the hockey side of things, Robitaille was philosophical and took note of the path taken by his most prominent former teammate.
“I like the chair I’m in,” he said of his current job title. “I’ve learned to never say no. I remember Wayne (Gretzky) saying he would never coach and he ended up coaching, so I would never say no. But at the same time, I’m very comfortable where I’m at.
“We have a good rhythm right now, (GM Dean Lombardi) is doing a great job on the hockey side and at the same time we’re able to bring up our numbers on the revenue side.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen five years from now, but right now I’m very happy where I’m at.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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