Here you go, 24
A cold one with Luc Robitaille
Talking Kingly glory, top fighters, and the fame game
Posted: Thursday November 15, 2007 1:57PM; Updated: Friday November 16, 2007 10:53AM
Now suiting up for a shift of a different kind, former Kings great Luc Robitaille spearheads the team's effort to reach out to fans.
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Over a pre-game beer in the Grand Reserve Room at Staples Center, I recently had the chance to talk to Hall of Fame-bound and current L.A. Kings President of Business Operations Luc Robitaille. Reminiscing about the golden age of the old Forum Club, a mid-90s Hollywood hockey hot spot, we talked Kings history, the team's current roster of promising young talent, marketing (a major part of Luc's new gig), and his desire to bring back the buzz to a team that is now playing second fiddle to the defending Stanley Cup champion Ducks down the road in Anaheim.
Perhaps most intriguing to me was Luc's frank discussion of being a family man in the sometimes selfish occupation of a professional athlete. I, of course, inquired about the greatest fighter to ever share Lucky Luc's ice. As we sat down to chat, former Kings owner Bruce McNall, the man who brought Gretzky to LA, wandered over, thus amping my blast from the past.
John: You know, seeing Bruce McNall brings me back to '93 and, some would say, the glory days of the Kings. Do you think about the past at all?
Luc: It's always about the present, and what we can do for the future. In the early nineties, Bruce created something special here. How can we bring that back? I try to learn from the good things that were done.
John: Well, we are sitting here in the GRC. I know you're trying to recapture the old days of the Forum Club, where you had to get through three or four bodyguards, you had to know somebody. The players and coaches would come back and Hollywood's Who's Who were up there along with some pretty ladies. Can you speak about what you're trying to do here with the Kings?
Luc: That's what we're trying to do. It's a little bit different at the Staples Center. At the Forum it was easy. We're trying to recreate it here because it's a great room, the Grant Reserve Room. We've had players come out. We've had [musical] performances after the games and so forth. Right now we're starting to get fans who are calling about it and starting to hear about it. We're going to throw a couple of big charity events in the next few months. We're doing one for the fire victims. The bottom line is our players like it. This is LA. There's no other city like it. We need to go out of our way to cater to the right people.
John: I know you've been reaching out a lot to Hollywood. [Before the season-opener, Robitaille and producer Jerry Bruckheimer hosted a Meet The Kings bash at Wolfgang Puck's in The Beverly Wilshire Hotel that was attended by Constance Zimmer, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Mary Hart, Tom Arnold and other notables, including Kings all-timers like Marcel Dionne.]
Luc: A lot of guys in Hollywood are huge Kings fans. We're hockey people and we give entertainment. Hollywood understands things like mixing music with an event, mixing lighting and so forth. We're just at the infancy stage of working with that, but I really think going forward this could make a difference. It could help the NHL altogether.
John: I actually went to Game One of [last season's] Stanley Cup Final and I sat next to Mr. Bettman. It was all I could do to restrain myself [laughs] about some of the marketing choices the NHL's made in the last few years. What specifically do you think the NHL could really do for outreach?
Luc: The biggest thing is you gotta find a way for people to see the game. It doesn't matter what channel it's on, it's how you market and promote it. You gotta tell people to go to a certain station, but I think we need to work harder at it. Look at the NFL. The NHL's never really done a good job of marketing players. People on the inside say that hockey players are the nicest guys, but then nobody talks about them. I think we need to make sure people see our players. We have Sidney Crosby, we have Alex Ovechkin. We need a couple guys in New York and LA. For us, we have Anze Kopitar and Michael Cammalleri. The Rangers signed a couple stars in Drury and Gomez.
John: Do you think Versus has enough coverage to do what the NHL really needs to do as far as exposure?
Luc: I look at the deal with Versus as the same thing as when we were on ESPN2. When we started on ESPN2 they had, what, 50 million [homes]? The next thing you know, they were at 90, and then they forgot where they came from. We were their main sport. Versus started at about 60. Then they were around 80 and I'm hoping over the next two years we can get about a 100 million and then we'll see. At the end of the day, I think we need to market the players and people will find the channel.
John: I think we both agree that unless you win, not much helps. Your team started 1-6 [laughs]. Were you a little nervous in the first few weeks?
Luc: Oh, we weren't happy. I knew our team was good 'cause I really like our young guys. In our top positions, Kopitar is 20 years old. Our top defenseman going forward, who's not there yet but will be, is Jack Johnson ]20]. We have a goalie [Jonathan Bernier] who went back to junior this year, but he's 19: We feel like we have our three most important positions covered. Compared to football, it's like you have a star at quarterback, receiver and linebacker. The receiver will be Cammalleri. He's 24, so we're very, very young. This is a key for us.
John: [Jason] LaBarbera really solidified the goaltending position and that's when the Kings started to win.
Luc: I've said it for the last two years. I think he's deserved his chance in the NHL and like many big guys, it always takes some time to start the season. He's won those games because he's not playing above his head. He's just being himself. He's going to surprise a lot of people.
John: I know you think fighting has a place in the league. Who do you think is the best fighter in the NHL now?
Luc: Even though fighting has gone down a lot, I have to admit there's a couple of guys, Hal Gill, [George] Parros, [Zdeno] Chara, [Derek] Boogaard. Those guys are 6-7, 6-8. Everbody else is 6-1, 6-2 and you can't beat those guys. I saw Chara hit a guy the other night. I couldn't believe it. It was like he disfigured the guy. I felt so bad, but I think those guys are the best fighters.
John: You did have your Tie Domis back in the day. Who's the toughest fighter you ever played with or against?
Luc: Well, there's two guys. The first was Ken Baumgartner. He could take ten punches and his face wouldn't even move. It was amazing. The other guy that made it tough because he would never admit defeat was Marty McSorley. Marty was the kind of guy who understood his role and fought for the team, for the right reason. First he protected guys. Then he'd change the tempo of many games. The other thing that made Marty special was if he would lose a fight -- he didn't lose that many -- he would fight the same guy until he'd win.
John: One thing that I took from your retirement ceremony that really struck me because I relate a bit to it was when you thanked your wife Stacia for all the years. You mentioned that being a professional athlete is a very selfish occupation . I can relate to that because of what I do. It's about our brand, our career. Whether it's a gig or a game, there's always pressure where the spotlight's shining.
Luc: I think that's the biggest thing when you're living your dream. Every day, everything I did, my whole life was hockey. I came home and everything was about the game that next day. My family had to adjust to my schedule. I never adjusted to them because it was constantly about my life, my workout schedule. I had to be better the next year. To be successful, you have to be that self-centered. It's all about driving and being the best you can be every day.
John: People will say, man, it must be fun to do what you do. I always say it's a lot of things, but it's not fun [laughs]. It's rewarding. It's exciting. There are moments that you will treasure for the rest of your life. Was it ever fun for you?
Luc: I can look back and say it was the greatest time of my life, but while you're doing it, it's never fun. I remember I scored two goals and I came back and told my wife, "Oh man, I missed one."
John: It's never enough.
Luc: Our highs are really big, but people don't understand we have a lot of big lows and they're hard. They're emotional and physically hard, and then when you have a high, though, it's like the ultimate rush. That's why we're one in a million. We're very fortunate. There's 18 or 20 thousand people watching the game. They pay because you do something that a lot of people can't do.
John: Let's talk about one of the ultimate highs: when you finally won the Stanley Cup [in 2002 with Detroit]. You were at that stage in your career where you really needed to work hard as your body was starting to give up on you a little bit. Were you able to sit back and at least recognize the moment?
Luc: Actually, yes. I always said that if I would've won the Stanley Cup my first three years, I would have partied. It would have been the greatest and I would have thought I would have won it again. But because I had played 16 years at the time, I'll never forget enjoying literally every single moment of it. It wasn't about drinking and partying. I took my family and kids and my wife in the parade, and I knew this probably was not going to happen again. I knew how hard it had been for me to get there.
John: When was the last time you put on skates?
Luc: A year and a half ago. Today we had a game for charity and they wanted me to play and I'm like, "Ah, I'm not ready yet."
Musician John Ondrasik is the creative force and voice of the platinum award-winning band Five for Fighting. His SI.com column will appear each month during the NHL season.