TORONTO — Luc Robitaille steps off the stage after a guest-speaking appearance at a business summit in Toronto at the esteemed Royal Fairmont Hotel and ducks into a meeting room. It’s nice, but it’s lined with carpet and wallpaper that have to pre-date his legendary NHL career.
These weren’t necessarily the trappings nor the circumstances with which I expected to first meet and interview the current president of the Los Angeles Kings and highest-scoring left winger in NHL history.
A ninth-round draft pick, had just one team show interest in you coming out of junior, and yet you’ve carved out a 30- or 35-year career in hockey. You must have had a backup plan?
[Laughs] I’ve never had that question asked before. I remember when I was 16, my thinking was, ‘well if it doesn’t work, I’ll apply to be a policeman.’ That probably would have been my back-up plan. Not knowing that I was going to come out in the draft, I was actually looking into maybe going into college, because I thought it would be a great experience to play college in the U.S., but there wasn’t anyone interested at the time. I didn’t know who to reach out to. Then I got drafted by Hull, first round, I didn’t even know I was going to get drafted. It was the surprise that probably changed the course of my life.
So the backup plan wouldn’t look like this, speaking in front of a bunch of suits at a global business summit?
No, I tell people back in L.A., if I weren’t here, I’d be probably a little more overweight, in Montreal as a policeman, complaining about the Canadiens saying, ‘I don’t know what they’re doing.’ .. Just like every fan in Quebec.
President of an NHL team carries a loose job description. Some are more directly involved in roster construction while others lean toward the business side, where do you fall on that spectrum?
(I’m responsible) for the vision of the organization. I played the game so I’ll have my opinion, but it’s our GM’s job to handle the roster. (Hockey Operations) does an extreme amount of work and are experts at it. Even though Rob Blake has only been at it for a year and a half, before that he was working as an assistant GM. He understands how much work goes into it. So for me, I work just as much with our COO that runs our business as our GM. At the same time you have to make sure it’s their job. I probably have a little bit different philosophy — we all have to work as a team. We all work together, but you have to make sure you trust your people.
What attracted you to the specific role you’re in?
I thought I had paid a price as a player. I listened to every coach and everything. I had a specific vision to which I see an organization, the culture of a team. I was really intrigued by that, seeing if we could change that and make a difference. For me it was about the Kings. It wasn’t about any other team. It was about the L.A. Kings. Fixing them and putting them into the right direction as an organization and (raising) the expectations.
What was it about the early-2000s Red Wings? Yourself, Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman have all had immensely successful executive careers.
I think Shanny, Stevie, they were great players but people think it was just talent. Steve Yzerman’s work ethic was better than anyone’s. He worked at getting better every day. His work ethic was what made him so special. Shanahan was the same. Everything he did was geared toward the next game, be better the next game. These guys had discipline. They were students of the game. And they were both tremendous leaders. It’s shown with what they’re doing today.
Why was Shanahan the right person to turn the Leafs around?
He did a tremendous job at the NHL. He literally changed the Department of Player Safety. He had a vision. He changed the entire system, which is amazing. He was the first one that communicated with players, with fans. We take that for granted now. To me, knowing that he had done that already, you knew he could come to a city and team like Toronto and see through his vision. Good for the organization and city for being patient and listening to him. You don’t know if you’re going to win the Stanley Cup, but the fun thing about the Maple Leafs is that they know now that they’re going to compete for the next few years.
You were the underdog type coming up. Is there someone that you see yourself in and find yourself rooting for in the league now?
I root for most guys. I love whenever I see a kid that’s very passionate and works hard at what he does. You can see all the talent in the world but it’s his work ethic that gets them there. I get a kick out of watching kids like that. That kid (Brock) Boeser in Vancouver, he’s got that. They question him, but he always seems to bounce back. I love watching Sidney (Crosby). Not because he’s a superstar, but because he carries himself like a third- or fourth-line player. He works harder than anyone else. It’s hard to play on his team if you’re not a hard worker. When the best player in the world out-works you, you better work. That’s why they’ve had so much success.
You had success right away, and so have many of the talented rookies coming up. I think somewhere in the middle is where players really took those rookie lumps. Is there a reason for this?
The game has changed so much. What’s happening is the disparity in contracts. Years ago the top guys were making $5 or 6 million and a lot of guys making $2 or 3 million. Now there’s guys making $10, 8 and 7 million and others making $650K. There’s still a middle class, but it’s hard to keep them. Teams tend to go with the younger guy because there’s only so much cap space. It’s just the way the system works. And what’s happening is kids that play hockey at a young age all have personal coaches. The competition is fierce, they play 12 months a year. The skill level by the time you get to the pros — you have had the old 10,000 hours. The skill is a level we’ve never seen. Because of the disparity in salaries, we have to play young guys. Now there’s no in between.
Would you have preferred to have played in this era?
My era wasn’t as open as it is today, but the goalies weren’t as good. I think the goalies today are the biggest difference in the game of hockey — they are just so good. They’re all big. In the 70s or 80s, if you played hockey on the street and you were small, you were the goalie. That’s changed tremendously. But I would have liked to play in every era. Any (current) era is the best era. Whatever era you played, that was the best league in the world. What we’re seeing now though is pretty amazing. It’s incredible what these kids can do.
If you could pick a centre in today’s game to play with, who would it be?
I mean, I think anyone would pick Connor McDavid. Crosby and Malkin have been amazing, but it’s incredible what McDavid can do, how much room he can create for himself. There are a lot of great players, but there’s no one like him. No one even near him.
You’re regarded as a positive guy. How do you stay upbeat in a season that has gone the way it has?
It’s very disappointing. Eighteen months ago when we had changes, we established what our core was going to be. It was the same core that we have had for a few years. This core has to hold the fort for the next few years while we slowly but surely hold onto our draft picks and rebuild on the fly. At the time, we’ll have to make some hard decisions. Unfortunately this year is pushing our plan up a little bit. We’re still studying, looking at our options, watching our kids, working harder than we ever have at development. But that’s the way it is. Sports are cyclical. You look at Chicago in the same boat as us. Pittsburgh is doing a little better but you look at them and they have been a little borderline. It’s just the way it is. We have had a really good run. We’re grateful for what our guys have given us, and at the same time we have to be very diligent and smart about what the next 12 months bring us. We know that.
What excites you most about where this franchise is headed?
We were all part of the last run. You don’t know if you’re going to win the Stanley Cup, but you have to build a team that gives you a chance. We’re going to use the same model to bring it back to that. The most important thing, and it’s no secret, you have to draft well. Do a really good job in the first two rounds and you’re going to be OK. If you hit in the fourth and fifth rounds, then you might have something special.
How would you assess the job of Willie Desjardins so far?
He’s been good. He’s come into a tough situation. Our team wasn’t playing well. He’s really trying to teach our guys how to play this new game of stretching. We won the Stanley Cup playing this unit of five, where everyone came up together. Because we never stretched, never cheated, we never gave up anything up the other way. We were still playing that way, and I’m not sure you can play that way in this new era of the NHL. I’m not sure it’s adaptable, especially if you get down a goal or two, and this year we’ve found ourselves down. You have to stretch it a little bit, move your feet more.
What made Marco Sturm such an important target?
We liked his energy and what he brought to his team in Germany at the Olympics. We know he’s one of the up-and-coming coaches. He’s got a great delivery. He’s a players’ coach. He understands this new era. We thought it would be good to bring him on. We know, and he knows, he has a ways to go. But he’s a great hockey mind.
Have you determined what the priority will be at the deadline?
Not yet. We have time. We’re looking at everything we’ve got. We’re working on exactly how we want to attack it. When you’re struggling and down like this, you want to have an exact vision to make sure you get back on track. We have an idea of what we want to do, but we want to make sure we do it right.
Shifting gears a bit. You have an actor in the family. I wonder, what puts more stress on a family, Hollywood auditions or hockey tryouts?
If you want to be in sports, to me it was easy because all you have to do is play. Treat every practice, every preseason game like Game 7. If you play like that, you’ll make the team. That’s what Wayne Simmonds did. Every time he stepped on the ice it was like he was in a Game 7. But with acting, you could do the best job, but if you’re too small or too tall for the parent in the movie, or your hair colour isn’t the same as the Mom, then they might not pick you anyway. You have to have a thick skin, because the rejection is constant.
Finally, what’s it like sharing office space with LeBron James?
Well we moved offices, so he’s about a quarter mile away. So I guess the Lakers needed more room to have him! It’s been fun, very interesting to see the LeBron effect. At Staples Center we sell out the suites every year, but we have 2,500 premier seats split between all three teams. This was the second time only that every single seat was sold. Boom! Within five minutes they were gone. We all knew it was LeBron. He’s almost bigger than the game, very rare to see that. His effect is incredible. That being said, L.A. is a funny town. It’s almost like it’s bigger worldwide than it is in L.A. Yeah, the Lakers sell out, but if the Rams play the next day, it’s the Rams. If the Kings can have a good run, we’ll talk about the Kings. L.A. is funny, it’s not like Toronto where it’s all Leafs.
Folks in L.A. are jaded. Stars everywhere.
He can have a life there. He can go to a restaurant. People will notice him, but he can have a life. He can have dinner and Drake might be three tables down. I don’t know if jaded is the word, but that’s how L.A. is.
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