You could have called it the "just-in-case" season on the rink.
King left wing Luc Robitaille wanted to be sure he didn't miss a thing in 2003-04, taking in the sights and sounds of what very well could have been his last NHL go-around. Annoyances suddenly vanished in a wave of nostalgia.
"I took it as though it could be my last year," he said Wednesday at his Beverly Hills home. "So I enjoyed every moment, especially the last couple months of the year. I had fun. I would sit in the room and just look around and never feel negative about anything. It didn't matter."
Robitaille was talking with reporters a few hours after the NHL canceled the season because of a labor dispute. Though the unprecedented move did not necessarily mean he had played his final game, Robitaille, who turns 39 today, has been pragmatic. He made certain he kept one souvenir from the Kings' final regular-season game in San Jose on April 4.
Almost as insurance.
"I'll never forget my last game.... We lost. It was unfortunate," Robitaille said. "But I picked up the puck. Just in case. My son [Steven] came to the game. The game before at Staples Center, I told [my family], 'This could be my last one.' If it happens, I didn't want to say, 'I wish I would have enjoyed it.' "
Considering the labor impasse could stretch beyond this season, does Robitaille think he has played his last game?
"I'm honestly 50-50," he said.
And if some anonymous game in San Jose was the end of an outstanding career, that's not the way it should have happened for Robitaille, according to King President Tim Leiweke. Robitaille played his first game for the Kings in the 1986-87 season and is the highest-scoring left wing in NHL history.
"I feel sorry for Luc, this should have been the greatest year of his career," Leiweke said in a conference call Wednesday.
"He should be having a tour and tributes to the greatest left wing in the history of the NHL. Luc was robbed of his last year."
The same may be said for many of Robitaille's peers. The future is equally murky for the best and brightest of his generation -- among others, 40-somethings Mark Messier, Brett Hull, Dave Andreychuk, Ron Francis and Chris Chelios, as well as 39-year-old player/owner Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman, who will turn 40 in May.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about those who might have played their last games.
"I think it's a tragedy," Bettman said at a news conference in New York. "I think it's a tragedy we've all had to go through this. It's a tragedy for players because their careers are short. This is money and an opportunity they'll never get back.
" ... I hope when it's over they think it's worth it, because I don't see how it plays out that way and that's a tragedy."
Yzerman won't be making a quick move on his future, telling Associated Press: "There's no immediate need to make a decision on whether I want to continue to play. It looks like I'll have a lot of time to think about it."
That leading group of marquee players could be gone for good should the labor impasse continue through next season.
"If this deal goes as far as I think it will go, there will be 25% of players in this league that will never come back," Robitaille said. "And that's a big, big number. When this starts, people won't know who's playing and it's going to be really hard to sell.
"There's a reason people don't go to see minor league hockey, because they don't know who's playing."
Robitaille noted something of an inherent culture clash in the sport.
"The way the NHL has always been -- they've never tried to sell players or the game," he said. "I think it's the old Canadian mentality where you're a team guy.
"You just sell the team. You never say a word. You just be polite and so forth. That's not the way it works in the U.S."
Times staff writers Helene Elliott and Chris Foster contributed to this report.