Robitaille’s Hall of Fame career had humble beginning

By Wayne Scanlan, The Ottawa Citizen

He goes by the handle of “Lucky Luc” and it isn’t hard to see why. Luc Robitaille continues to be blessed by things he couldn’t see coming.

Robitaille, 43, former Hull Olympique of the QMJHL, is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame today along with fellow players Steve Yzerman, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and builder Lou Lamoriello.

Even now, Luc can hardly believe his luck.

“You are just a kid, you want to play a game,” says the Montreal native, “and the next thing you know, you’re in the Hall of Fame with all the legends.”

Robitaille suited up with a few of them on Sunday afternoon, taking part in the Hall of Fame Legends game at the Air Canada Centre.

Not many Hall of Famers had a more humble entry into the NHL. Despite a tremendous junior career in Hull (85 points as a rookie in his draft year, and 191 points in his final year in the ‘Q’), Robitaille was considered a poor skater. Scouts dismissed his numbers as just more bloated stats from Quebec.

One hundred and seventy kids were drafted ahead of him in 1984 — and that included baseball pitcher Tom Glavine, who was selected by the L.A. Kings in the fourth round, 69th overall.

Robitaille only knew one scout, Alex Smart of Ottawa, working for the Kings. Smart would cross the bridge to see Robitaille play with the Olympiques.

“So, every time the Kings turn came up I thought it was my only shot to get in the NHL, because I’d never heard from any other scout,” Robitaille says.

The wait was agonizing.

Robitaille and several of his Olympiques teammates were at the Montreal Forum shortly past noon, hoping and wondering. This was the year Mario Lemieux had been drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but refused to put on the uniform because he hadn’t come to a contract agreement. The confusion around the Lemieux situation added nearly another hour’s wait.

Over the next several hours, Robitaille consumed six or seven hot dogs, give or take.

“I think I had about a hot dog a round, or a hot dog an hour … those great hot dogs at the Montreal Forum.”

Robitaille figures it was 7 p.m. by the time his name was called, in the ninth round in a near empty arena. Beaming, he ran downstairs to the floor to meet Kings officials and was promptly stopped by a guard from Armed Security Guard Services.

Where do you think you’re going? Robitaille had no agent. Luckily (what else?), Pierre Lacroix, a player agent at the time, saw Robitaille being held up and smoothed the way past security. Robitaille proudly marched up to the Kings table, which by that time was populated by just two staffers, one of them the director of player personnel.

“Who are you?” he says to Luc.

“I’m Luc Robitaille — you just drafted me.”

The player personnel guy looks at his list, sees Robitaille’s name and says, “Oh, you’re right, but we don’t have any more jerseys or caps.”

So the staffer pulls a Kings pin off the lapel of his own jacket and flips it to Robitaille: “Here.”

“That was my souvenir,” Robitaille says. “I’ve still got the pin, too.” A hotshot draft pick today would view the abrupt welcome as a slight. Not Robitaille. A foot in the door was enough.

“I was so pumped,” he says. “My name was on the list, so I knew I had a shot now.”

In Los Angeles, the legendary Marcel Dionne took Robitaille under his wing. Right from the first training camp, Dionne dismissed Robitaille’s crazy notion that HE might feed Dionne. “It’s funny, because my idol was Wayne, I took so much pride in being a playmaker,” Robitaille says.

Although he had 123 assists in his final year in Hull, setting up Guy Rouleau, being the next Gretzky wasn’t Robitaille’s calling.

Garry Galley, a former Robitaille teammate in L.A., remembers Robitaille being chided as “Cy Young” for his lopsided goals to assist ratio (eg. 24-3 midway through a season. Get it? Cy Young kind of numbers). One time, Robitaille vowed to set someone up on his next shift, dutifully throwing a pass out front, only to have it bounce in off a defenceman. Goal — Robitaille. He skated by his own bench and said, “I tried.”

In that first camp, Robitaille tried to set up Dionne on a 2-on-1, when the great centre set him straight.

“He comes to the bench,” Robitaille recalls, “and he says, ‘listen kid, I’ll be the playmaker, you go to the net and I’ll feed you.’ “I said, ‘alright Mr. Dionne.’ “I’m no dummie. It’s kind of funny, he kept feeding me and I kept scoring.”

No kidding. In his first seven seasons, Robitaille recorded 45, 53, 46, 52, 45, 44 and 63 goals for the Kings. His biggest thrill? His first game, against the St. Louis Blues in the fall of 1986.

“I went from no one,” Robitaille says. “No one thought I’d make it. I’ll never forget getting on the ice my first game, being on the bench as anxious as ever and I think we went as a fourth line on that first shift.

“I jumped on the ice, go right to the front of the net and Rick Wamsley made a mistake, whipped it around the boards and Marcel Dionne stops it. I go, ‘Marcel!’ and he gave it to me and I tipped it in the empty net.”

Dionne loved the fact Robitaille was in L.A. to play hockey and the kid wound up with 668 goals — 668 more than Tom Glavine — and 1,394 points, plus a Stanley Cup season in 2002, alongside fellow inductees Yzerman and Hull.

Lucky guy, Luc Robitaille.