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Kings’ Losses Multiply, 2-1

In a season that has become a blur of bad days, Wednesday will stand out as an especially bleak day for King Coach Larry Robinson.

Awake early after a near-sleepless night, he began his day with a phone call from relatives in Canada telling him his 78-year-old mother Isobel had died unexpectedly. Another call brought the news one of the mares he keeps at his Florida home had dropped dead. He spent most of the day on the phone tracking down his sister, who was vacationing in Arizona, and making arrangements to return to Canada today for their mother’s funeral Saturday.

“It goes right along with the rest of the season,” Robinson said, forcing a smile. “It’s Murphy’s Law.”

Almost everything that can go wrong has gone wrong for the Kings, testing their depth and resolve and what remains of Robinson’s sanity. His hair has gone from gray to a cosmetically aided brown to gray again, matching the pallor of his face Wednesday.

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His mood wasn’t brightened by the Kings’ 2-1 loss to the Mighty Ducks at the Pond Wednesday, which dropped them seven points out of the final Western Conference playoff spot. The seven-game home stand that begins tonight is crucial to their immediate future and may affect whether Robinson wants to return after his four-year contract expires--and whether the Kings want him back.

Expectations were high for the Kings this season after an 87-point season in which they made the playoffs for the first time in five years. Weakened by injuries and dependent on too many marginal players, they are the NHL’s biggest disappointment. Robinson has tried to get them to play a physical game, but most players lack the heart and hunger to pull it off. They can’t play a skill game because they don’t have enough skill. They’re caught in the middle, with no identity or direction. Robinson has screamed--so much that it has little impact--patted backs, cajoled and coaxed, but he can’t squeeze blood out of stone hands. “It’s been hard,” he said.

Inevitably, his frustration boils over. He gets red-faced and agitated behind the bench, yelling at officials and the world at large. He shows his feelings more publicly than does his Duck counterpart, Craig Hartsburg, who displays less emotional range than the faces on Mount Rushmore.

Of course, Robinson has ample reason to despair, just as Hartsburg has little reason to fret. After missing the playoffs last season, the Ducks have responded well to Hartsburg’s low-key style. Blessed with a healthy Paul Kariya and a dynamic power play, the Ducks are challenging Phoenix for the fourth seeding in the conference and loom as a playoff force.

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“You can say all you want, but if you don’t have your key people in there, or the key people aren’t listening, it isn’t going to do any good,” Robinson said. “You have to be a little bit realistic, but sometimes this is not a realistic job. I still get enjoyment and satisfaction out of this, but that only comes with winning. Having been through tough times the first few years and then last year, the enjoyment hasn’t been there this season.”

Hartsburg says he’s having a fine time, although his demeanor behind the bench doesn’t reflect it. The Ducks could be winning the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals or be losing to the team in the movie that gave them their name, and Hartsburg’s expression would be the same. It’s almost comical to watch television close-ups of him. Arms folded across his chest and his face blank, he looks like a still-life painting. Only when he glances up at the clock or paces a step or two is it clear the picture on screen is live.

“He worries a lot,” Robinson said. “He’s got to learn to smile a little bit.”

Hartsburg, however, claims he’s not made of stone. He gets emotional. “They just don’t catch it,” he said of the TV cameras.

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“It’s just the way I do things. I don’t try to be something I’m not. There are times when I probably should shut up, but I don’t. I try to be myself. I want our team to be the best it can be.”

They are playing their best hockey, a feat for which Hartsburg deflects praise. “The Xs and O’s are the easiest things for coaches in this league. You can take all kinds of seminars where you learn about strategy but that’s not the biggest part of the job. It’s dealing with the players,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t say this but anybody can learn the Xs and O’s if you really want to and can come up with new ideas. It’s dealing with stress, which is something I’m learning about every day. . . .

“This job is such that every day you’ve got to keep learning. We ask our players every day to get better. As a coach, I have to learn, too. I’m not close to where I think I can be.”

Perhaps not. But he has guided the Ducks closer to a playoff berth than the Kings are. Robinson clings to fading hopes, having concluded only that he shouldn’t come to any conclusions about his future before this grim season ends.

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“It’s unfair to make those kinds of decisions in the middle of the year,” he said. “This job is a roller coaster. It just depends on how much more you can enjoy going on the roller coaster.”

Particularly when it’s heading downhill without brakes.


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