Tocchet, Talks It, Skates It
By giving up Luc Robitaille for Rick Tocchet, I get a feeling that hockey fans think the Kings traded one of the Little Rascals for one of the Hell’s Angels. The big July 30 deal has infuriated scores of fans, some of whom doggedly insist that Hockey Night in California will never be the same.
Robitaille was a hell of a hockey player. He was a lamplighter and a good kid and we practically watched him grow up. However, I feel a very strong urge to clarify something about Tocchet for everyone who has conveniently chosen to ignore or overlook it--excuse me, but this guy can play .
You’ll like Rick Tocchet. Trust me.
On the phone from his home in Philadelphia, where his backache is getting better every day, Tocchet (as in sock it ) said: “My first reaction to the trade was that I’d better perform, because Luc’s a pretty popular player out there. But I’m a little cocky. I don’t mean to put Luc down. But I know I can help that team. If I’m healthy, I could chip in 40 goals, no problem.”
When he got the news, Tocchet, 30, was watching TV in a friend’s bar with two former teammates, defenseman Kerry Huffman of the Ottawa Senators and left wing Brian Propp of the Hartford Whalers. They had played together in Philly before a big trade in 1992 (involving the Kings) ended up sending Tocchet to the Pittsburgh Penguins, with whom he promptly won a Stanley Cup.
Huffman turned to Tocchet, overjoyed.
“Los Angeles!” Huffman said. “Can I go with you?”
Tocchet had an inkling he was going somewhere. His contract had expired. During the 1992-93 season, his hockey numbers had been career bests--48 goals, 61 assists, seven more goals in the playoffs. Naturally, his penalty minutes were high, too, because Rick Tocchet spends more time inside penalty boxes than goldfish spend in bowls. But he had 20 power-play goals and four more short-handed. He had points in 64 of Pittsburgh’s 80 scheduled games. Like I said, the guy can play.
A back operation, though, after the 1993-94 season put his Penguin future in doubt. The club already had enough on its mind with Mario Lemieux planning to sit out the next season. Tocchet was plenty tough. His jaw was broken one night at Chicago in the second period but he returned for the third period anyway, scored twice, and Pittsburgh won, 4-3.
“My mom cried after that,” Tocchet remembered.
He gave the Penguins everything he had. But word was out that he was being shopped. Tocchet gave management a short list of preferred destinations, with L.A. on it. At no time, he wants it made clear, did Wayne Gretzky ever tell him that he would intercede on Tocchet’s behalf. But when the trade went down, stories spread that Gretzky had all but snapped his fingers and made Robitaille disappear.
“From what I’ve heard, it’s been very unfair,” Tocchet said. “Wayne Gretzky has a presence on and off the ice, yes. But he never, ever said to me anything like, ‘We’re going to get you.’
“If it were any other player, I doubt there’d be a reaction like this. I guarantee you, Mario Lemieux gets called in and consulted. He gets asked what he thinks of a player before there’s a trade. Heck, even I’d get asked. Don’t you think a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux might be entitled to make a suggestion now and then? I do.”
Tocchet had a conversation the other day with Paul Coffey, the ex-King, ex-Penguin with whom he now had something in common. Coffey told him not many players get a chance to play with both Gretzky and Lemieux in their careers, and few more ever will. Gretzky’s back pushed him to the brink of retirement, and Lemieux is an outpatient with Hodgkin’s disease.
Is Lemieux’s career over?
“For this year, definitely. It’s hard for me to say beyond that,” Tocchet said. “I could see where trying to come back every couple of months could take a toll on him. I can see him getting as far away from hockey as possible to think everything over.”
Tocchet will be teamed with Gretzky, who can use all the hitters around him he can get, and re-teamed with Marty McSorley, who was more or less a Penguin temp. He also thinks the Kings have a couple more changes yet to make. His back, not quite 100% yet, is healing properly, and Tocchet prefers to stay in Philadelphia a while longer before moving here with his girlfriend. L.A. loses someone special, yes. But it is not gaining some goon. Tocchet has 11 hat tricks. He’s had four-goal games three times.
“The Kings are changing with the times,” he said. “You look at the teams that reached the finals, Vancouver is big and tough and so are the Rangers. So naturally the Kings are looking to be more physical. It’s in me to score 50 to 55 goals if that’s what they need. I just don’t think that’s what they’re looking for from me.
“I always looked forward to going to Los Angeles. To be perfectly honest, we never gave them much respect early on. The Kings were not that good, let’s face it. We’d say, ‘OK, let’s get two points and party.’ ”
Do teams respect the Kings now?
Good question, Tocchet agreed.
He said: “They’d better.”