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Robitaille Is Feeling Lucky

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Luc Robitaille, wearing a windbreaker to ward off the cold, stepped out of a bleak mid-October morning Friday into a hotel coffee shop. The day’s dreary beginning reminded the former King, a summer addition to the Detroit Red Wings, of something one of his new teammates said, and he laughed as he recalled it:

“Brendan Shanahan told me, ‘At the end of September, we say goodbye to the sun, then we see it again in June. When we go to L.A., we say, ‘Hello, sun.”’

He laughed again.

If the inclement weather ahead is a concern, Robitaille won’t let on.

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The all-star left wing, one of the most popular players in King history, has made himself at home in Detroit, even if that means an apartment in suburban Birmingham, while his wife, Stacia, and their sons, Steven and Jesse, remain in Sherman Oaks.

Robitaille, his pride wounded by the Kings’ offer of a $1-million pay cut after he scored 37 goals and ranked 12th in the NHL in scoring last season, signed a two-year, $9-million contract with the Red Wings on July 2.

Part of an off-season spending spree by the Red Wings that also brought goaltender Dominik Hasek, right wing Brett Hull and heightened Stanley Cup expectations in the Motor City, Robitaille started slowly, failing to score during the exhibition season or the first three regular-season games.

But he is now playing on a line with Hull and center Steve Yzerman and has put together a four-game goal-scoring streak.

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What’s more, the powerful Red Wings bring a 6-1 record, the Western Conference’s best, into tonight’s game against the Kings.

“I like it a lot,” Robitaille said of his new surroundings. “The people are really nice. And it’s a great team. It’s a great chance [to win the Stanley Cup], and for that I’m very thankful.”

Robitaille, 35, watched with envy last June as Ray Bourque, who toiled for years with the Boston Bruins, finally got to be part of a championship team with the Colorado Avalanche.

“I remember thinking, ‘Ray is so lucky to get on a great team like that,”’ he said. “And now here’s my chance.... But at the time, my thinking was, ‘If we can get two guys with the Kings, we can win it all.”’

The Kings had other plans.

Their lone proposal to Robitaille was $2.5 million for one season, $1 million less than he made last season in the final year of a six-year contract he signed while with the New York Rangers.

It wasn’t as if his production had declined. Quite the opposite.

Robitaille had been a favorite among King fans since his debut season, 1986-87, when he scored 45 goals and was voted the NHL’s rookie of the year.

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Traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1994, Robitaille returned to the Kings in 1997 and averaged more than 37 goals in his last three seasons.

His 88 points last season were his most since 1992-93 and he ranked second in the NHL in power-play points with 45, among them 16 power-play goals. His 37 goals pushed his career total to 590, 13th on the all-time list.

But Tom Reich, one of his agents, called the Kings’ contract offer “about as attractive as a Zamboni through your front door.”

Robitaille, stunned and disheartened, rejected it out of hand.

“I wasn’t expecting that the money would be less than I was making,” he said. “So it made it pretty easy on me. It was pretty clear.”

The Kings said budget limitations played a role, with a ceiling of about $40 million having been imposed by multibillionaire owner Philip Anschutz. Only four months earlier, they had traded all-star defenseman Rob Blake to the Avalanche, rather than pay him the market rate or lose him without compensation.

Club President Tim Leiweke, trying to explain months later, said the Kings could have handled the Robitaille situation more delicately, perhaps by making their intentions clearer earlier on, but said they don’t regret their move.

“I don’t think, ultimately, that we were going to spend that kind of money on a guy that was that old,” Leiweke said. “Now, could the communications have been better? Sure.... We didn’t mean to insult Luc. We have great respect for Luc, and in particular we’re really proud of everything he’s done for this organization.”

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Robitaille, who said that he and Leiweke have since cleared the air, respects the Kings’ decision but doesn’t understand it.

“At the time I was shocked and I was disappointed,” he said, “but that’s the way it is; that’s business. There’s one side of hockey that I love, where you get on the ice and it’s just a game. You just play the game. But there’s also a business side, and that was their business decision ... and I had to make my own decision after that.”

He put the word out to agent Pat Brisson: Get me to a winner.

“I said, ‘If I’m going to go, I want to have a chance to win the Cup,”’ Robitaille said. “You’re never guaranteed, of course, but I wanted to go to a team that was going to say, ‘We’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”’

Enter the Red Wings, still stinging from their ignominious first-round playoff exit last spring at the hands of Robitaille and the Kings.

“We went into the off-season wanting to do something with some impact,” General Manager Ken Holland said this week. “We felt things were getting stale here in Detroit.... And when we made the trade for Dominik Hasek prior to July 1, it really set into motion a domino effect for us...

“We have creative playmakers down the middle in Yzerman, [Igor] Larionov and [Sergei] Fedorov and if you get to the scoring positions, they’ll get you the puck. So we thought it was a real good fit for our team to get Luc.”

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In less than 24 hours, Holland and Brisson struck a deal.

So far it has worked out.

While his former team has struggled to score goals during a 2-3-1-1 start, Robitaille has helped the Red Wings to the top of the Central Division.

“Every game I feel more and more comfortable,” Robitaille said. “But he said he is uneasy about playing against the Kings, though he has faced them in the past while with other teams.

“It’s different this time,” he said. “What we had last year and what we did [taking the Avalanche to Game 7 in the Western Conference semifinals], I really felt I was part of that team.

“I really felt I was part of the leadership.”

Now, of course, he’s part of a new team, perhaps a better team.

His pursuit of the Stanley Cup has taken him out of the California sun, but he has no regrets.

“I know I made the right decision,” he said. “You can be a nice guy, but there’s a reason I’ve played in this league a long time and my pride goes a long way.”


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