The No. 1 selection in the 1984 NHL Draft was an outsized center from Montreal who had just completed a 133-goal, 282-point season with Laval of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. His name was Mario Lemieux, and he drew raves in bundles and lived up to every one of them.
One hundred seventy picks later, another French-Canadian from Montreal was selected, three picks into the ninth round, by the Los Angeles Kings. Like Lemieux, Luc Robitaille was 18 years old. Unlike Lemieux, Robitaille, with an ungainly skating stride that was straight out of a rec league, was regarded as a prospect with not much more potential than a team mascot.
Video: Luc Robitaille highest-scoring LW in history
Robitaille's name wasn't called until more than 100 spots after that of a heralded prep baseball pitcher from Massachusetts, Tom Glavine, the Kings' fourth-round pick and a future baseball Hall of Famer. It might not have been called at all were if not for the late Alex Smart, a part-time, Ottawa-based scout for the Kings whom Robitaille calls "the one person [who] believed in me.
"I owe my career to Alex Smart," Robitaille said. "He was the only scout that ever talked to me. I was on one (team's scouting) list."
Smart's day job was with a tire company, where he would work for 40 years. Hockey was his love, though, and Smart was smitten with Robitaille's knack for playing it. He kept pressing his case on Robitaille with Kings management, right up through the day of the draft. While most scouts were dismissing Robitaille, a left wing, because of his slow, unimpressive skating and his questionable toughness, Smart saw something altogether different -- a kid with intelligence and drive and the obsession with putting the puck in the net that all great goal-scorers have. Stripped to its essence, the job of scouting is not so much to assess how good a player is at the moment, but how good he might become.
Games: 1,431 | Goals: 668 | Assists: 726 | Points: 1,394
Smart did it brilliantly.
"I was the kind of player where I was never good enough," Robitaille told the Hockey News. "Every game, whether things were great or not, I always wanted to be better and get better. I overanalyzed what I did. I was really hard on myself. I was always pushing to be better."
Robitaille spent two more years with his junior team, Hull, after the draft, and used the time brilliantly, developing into a star. He had 148 points (55 goals, 93 assists) in 1984-85. He was even better the following season, when he scored 191 points (68 goals, 123 assists) and won QMJHL playoff MVP honors with 44 points in 15 games). He also was named Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year -- a distinction that was made possible in part thanks to the assistance of linemate Guy Rouleau, who led the league with 91 goals that season and counseled Robitaille on how to shoot one-timers. The deadly wrist shot, with minimal or no windup, became a Robitaille hallmark; he would fire it before the goaltender was set, exhibiting an uncanny sense of how to create room to get it off.
"The puck seemed to follow him around and he seemed to know what to do with it," said Pat Quinn, the first NHL coach Robitaille played for. "Alex Smart was right. Luc Robitaille was someone special."
Marcel Dionne, a Hall of Fame center and Robitaille's teammate and mentor on the Kings, said: "Luc was accused for his skating abilities even as a rookie and 20 years later he [was] still playing at the highest level. How wrong were all those guys? Luc found a way, and that's what you do. Sometimes you don't have the perfect tools, but Luc had the perfect passion for the game."
By the time he got to the Kings in 1986-87, Robitaille was a vastly different player than the one he was as pick No. 171, and connected with Dionne as fast as it takes a goal light to turn on. Indeed, in the season opener, Dionne dug the puck out of the corner and slid it in the middle to Robitaille, who scored his first NHL goal and NHL point on the same play when Dionne scored his 1,600th point.
"I can still hear myself yelling 'Marcel,' " Robitaille told the Los Angeles Times. "He threw the puck to me in front of the net and I tipped it in. I was so excited."
Dionne's assistance didn't end there. When he found out that Robitaille was living in a Los Angeles hotel that wasn't in the most desirable of neighborhoods, Dionne took him into his home. That's where Robitaille stayed the whole season, which he finished with 45 goals, 39 assists and the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie. Dionne would often ask Robitaille if he wanted to go out and explore L.A., see the Hollywood sites and other attractions.
Robitaille's stock reply: "No, thanks. I just want to play hockey."
And that is exactly what Robitaille did. He followed up his impressive debut by scoring 53 goals in year No. 2, and was as consistent as he was prolific, never scoring fewer than 44 goals in his first eight seasons with the Kings. His best season came in 1992-93, when he had 125 points (62 goals, 63 assists) and, along with his fellow co-captain, Wayne Gretzky, led the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost in five games to the Montreal Canadiens.
Two years later, the Kings traded Robitaille -- one of their most popular and productive players -- to the Penguins for Rick Tocchet and a draft choice. It was a controversial trade and Robitaille was profoundly disheartened by it, though he'd spent his whole career being upbeat and didn't change in his moment of distress.
"I just want to say that I feel bad about leaving L.A," Robitaille said at his farewell press conference. "I had great years here. I grew up here. I learned to speak English here. I learned a lot here and I've got some great memories.
"It's sad for us to go, but we're happy to be going to a place where a team wants us. .. . I'll get an opportunity to show different sides of my game. I have a lot to prove as a hockey player. I want to prove I'm not just a goal-scorer. That's my goal from now on, to show I can do more than just scoring goals in the NHL."
The trade launched an itinerant era in the previously stable career of Robitaille, who would be traded to the New York Rangers and then back to the Kings for another four-year run, before he signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent in 2001. Turning 36 years old that season, Robitaille scored 30 goals while playing alongside Igor Larionov, a future Hall of Famer, and Tomas Holmstrom, a major force on a team that survived a seven-game battle with the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Final, then knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes in five games to capture the Stanley Cup.
Having reached the apex of the NHL, Robitaille spent one more year in Detroit before winding up his career in the only place that made sense: Los Angeles. Long past his rookie days in Marcel Dionne's spare bedroom, Robitaille returned as both elder statesman and icon. He retired in 2006 with 668 goals and 1,394 points, the all-time leader among NHL left wings in each category. He would have his No. 20 retired in 2007 and go into the Hall of Fame in 2009 with a class that included Steve Yzerman, Brian Leetch, Brett Hull and Lou Lamoriello, and receive a salute from perhaps the greatest player of them all, Gretzky.
"I've known Luc since he was 17, with the Hull Olympiques," Gretzky said on the red carpet before the induction ceremony. "I've said this before: with 'Rocket' Richard, Mike Bossy, Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux, there's nobody who wanted to score more desperately than Luc Robitaille. He made himself a Hall of Famer."
You only wish that Alex Smart, the part-time scout who believed in him, had been around to see how right he was, how emphatically Luc Robitaille, the kid who supposedly couldn't skate, proved that heart and drive are way more important than legs.
"I never set out to accomplish anything like this," Robitaille said on the night he became a Hall of Famer. "When I was a kid, I dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League, and to now be alongside greats like Rocket Richard, Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky is not only indescribable, it is beyond anything I ever dreamed of. ... I just wanted to play in the NHL, and to have this happen, it's something truly amazing."
And then pick No. 171 from the 1984 NHL Draft offered a final perspective:
"Hope is the light that shines on the ninth-round draft picks of the world, who are too slow, who can't skate, don't have a chance of making it and compels them to make it. Even though this was written about me, this applies to all the kids around the world. Be a light; follow your dreams. Anything is possible!"
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