Maybe Kings Got Lucky : So Far, Tocchet Making Deal for Robitaille Appear Acceptable


When he steps out of a frigid practice rink into bright sunshine and 80-degree weather, Rick Tocchet knows he isn't in Pittsburgh anymore. His biggest concern isn't whether the car heater works quickly but deciding where to have lunch with Wayne Gretzky.

And the bistro clientele can be drastically different, as he discovered recently at a trendy L.A. Italian restaurant.

"Madonna was at the next table over," Tocchet said. "You don't see that sort of thing in Pittsburgh or Philly. I tried not to look. In L.A., you always seem to be looking at different people, so you try not to stare."

Did Madonna recognize him?

"No," Tocchet said, laughing.

So much for the value of a Stanley Cup ring.

But it's a good bet that neither would she have recognized Luc Robitaille, the other player in the Kings' biggest and most risky off-season transaction.

No one is saying Robitaille has been forgotten, an impossibility given his all-star status and popularity in Los Angeles, but Tocchet has helped allay fears that the Kings were torched inthe July trade, which also will require Pittsburgh to give up a second-round draft choice this summer.

His once-ailing back has held up, as evidenced by a takedown of Edmonton enforcer Kelly Buchberger and two solid go-arounds with the St. Louis Blues' Murray Baron. Doctors doubted he could play on consecutive nights, but Tocchet, 30, played against Winnipeg on Saturday and Chicago on Sunday.

Until Sunday's lackluster 6-3 loss to the Blackhawks, Tocchet was a plus-one player on the plus-minus scale. In six games, he has two goals (both on power plays), four points and 25 penalty minutes.

Typically, Tocchet is quick to point out his shortcomings, not his successes. His game against Chicago, in which he was pointless and a minus-three, has been hard to erase from his memory.

"We've been taking so many penalties, it's where I'm getting a little scared to take one," said Tocchet, who in 1987-88 with the Philadelphia Flyers became the third NHL player to record 30-plus goals and 300-plus penalty minutes in the same season.

"I have to have an attitude--to go for it. Play smart but play more aggressively. I've got to get more chances myself. That's my game, going to the front of the net.

"We have a great system, and it's working because we're holding teams down. But we should be able to score three, four goals a game. We have the system. We just have to apply ourselves."

With the Kings at 1-4-1 before tonight's game at the Forum against Detroit, team-wide application to the offensive system has been lacking.

But although there might be many areas open to criticism, the Tocchet deal has been one of the few bright spots.

"When you make a trade like that, you would not be telling the truth if you didn't have any worries," King General Manager Sam McMaster said. "We didn't trade Luc Robitaille, we traded for Rick Tocchet. We knew we were trading quality."

Robitaille has seven points in six games, but the Kings maintain they wanted the versatility that the 6-foot, 205-pound Tocchet provides. Additionally, he was acquired for his leadership skills and rapport with teammates. Former King General Manager Rogie Vachon used to sum it up with his own trademark phrase: "We want someone who is good in the room."

Tocchet has made it a point to help two of the team's youngsters--rookies Matt Johnson and Eric Lacroix. After a practice last week at the Forum, Tocchet worked with them on positioning in front of the net and giving and taking hits. But not fighting.

"Matt doesn't need anyone to show him how to fight," Tocchet said.

McMaster knew from personal experience what the Kings were getting. He drafted Tocchet, then 15, for his junior team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. Later, Tocchet went untouched in the 1982 draft, and McMaster, working as a part-time scout for Philadelphia, persuaded the Flyers to take him the next year with their fifth-round pick.

Tocchet led the Flyers in penalty minutes as a rookie in 1984-85 and had 72 penalty minutes in 19 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup finals. The Flyers reached the finals again in 1986-87, when Tocchet had 21 points in 26 playoff games. But that was the last bright moment for the franchise. Things turned sour under Coach Mike Keenan, and there was an open rebellion among players. Tocchet spoke his mind.

"He was great motivator for me--a great coach I really respected," Tocchet said. "He went over the edge sometimes, earlier on. But he's just like a player. He learned from his mistakes. He's a winning machine. He made me the player I am today."

Now, Tocchet and Keenan share a mutual respect, and Keenan has included him on his Canada Cup teams.

"The only thing that bugged me (in Philadelphia) is we won a lot of games for him," Tocchet said. "We had a couple of bad weeks, and his job was on the line. I think he kind of forgot, that, hey, we were his players, and we worked hard for him. To this day, he realizes that. I really can't say anything bad about him."

Tocchet finally was on a Stanley Cup champion in 1992, when he was traded to Pittsburgh in a complicated three-team deal that included the Kings. The most prominent players in the deal were defenseman Paul Coffey, who went to the Kings; Tocchet, who went to the Penguins, and Mark Recchi, who went from the Penguins to the Flyers.

So Tocchet's 11-year NHL career includes three teams, one Stanley Cup ring, 687 games, 293 goals, 645 points and 2,145 penalty minutes.

Long gone is the confusion regarding his heritage. When he was drafted, people in Philadelphia assumed he was French.

" Touche ," Tocchet said of the way some pronounced his name. "Nothing against the French, but I definitely did not want to be known as a Frenchman."

Italian would be more like it. He makes his own spaghetti sauce--"I don't like the store-bought stuff single guys buy"-- and has a father in Ontario who makes particularly potent homemade wine.

"Just homemade Italian, hair-on-your chest stuff," Tocchet said.

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