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HELENE ELLIOTT

Hall of Fame vote a real corker for Luc Robitaille and Kings

The left wing's first-ballot election is a champagne moment for a franchise that has had few causes to celebrate in its history.

June 24, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

Champagne doesn't flow freely around the Kings' offices, what with the playoffs a distant memory and one Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1967, but two bottles sat in a bucket in their conference room Tuesday beside a cake decorated with ripe strawberries and the words "Congratulations Luc."

Luc Robitaille, who became the highest-scoring left wing in NHL history between starting his career with the Kings in 1986 and finishing with them in 2006, had just been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He was as bubbly as the champagne that spilled into small plastic cups, marveling at the clusters of balloons and the good wishes pouring in via e-mail and text messages.

The next time the Kings pour champagne in their offices, he was told, the occasion should be celebrating a Cup title. Robitaille, their president of business operations, roared with laughter.

"That's the deal," he declared. "You will be here.

"Believe. Believe. C'mon."

While the Kings' foibles have strained the patience of even their staunchest fans, Robitaille is living proof that anything is possible.

The kid from Montreal who was drafted 171st in 1984 and was considered too slow a skater to make it in the NHL, on Tuesday joined one of the strongest classes in the Hall's history.

He will share the stage at the Nov. 9 induction in Toronto with former Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman, a consummate captain and two-way player; Brett Hull, as bold verbally as he was on the ice and, with father Bobby, the only father-son duo to each record 600 goals and 1,000 points; and two-time Norris trophy winner Brian Leetch, who became the first U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs during the New York Rangers' 1994 Cup run.

Elected in the builders' category was New Jersey Devils executive Lou Lamoriello, a three-time Cup winner and powerful force in NHL board rooms for decades.

No borderline picks here. And Robitaille, who won his lone Cup title alongside Yzerman and Hull with the Red Wings in 2002, doesn't have to take a back seat to any of them.

No speed? No grace? Drafted after a high school player of some repute named Tom Glavine?

"I think the biggest thing is I refused to listen to that," Robitaille said. "I played the game and tried to improve every day. I was always trying to help the team win. Maybe sometimes it didn't look good or it didn't look fast."

He did it well enough to set NHL career records for left wings with 668 goals and 1,394 career points and a single-season record of 125 points in 1992-93. He's 10th among all-time goal scorers and 19th in points, and his eight consecutive seasons of 40-plus goals rank third behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy.

"Everyone knew he had wonderful hands, great hands to score goals. The knock on him was he couldn't skate," said Rogie Vachon, the Kings' general manager when Robitaille was drafted and now a team ambassador.

"We gave him some skating lessons and he worked very hard. Every camp he improved his skating. He's never been a real fast skater, but he's so smart, he could be in the right place at the right time."

Los Angeles was always the right place for Robitaille, even though he clashed with Gretzky and left and came back and left again before returning for two seasons.

We watched him mature from a kid to a man, from a prospect to a potent goal scorer, from an unknown quantity to the Kings' most recognizable face. "I did grow up here," he said, and that's the root of his appeal.

Gretzky arrived as a fully formed superstar, so good he was otherworldly. Robitaille, approachable and emotional and open, shared his journey with everyone who rooted for the Kings when they wore Forum blue and gold, black and silver, and every other variation of the uniform.

"He's got a great personality," Vachon said. "He's always smiling and talking to people. I'm very proud of him."

That bond is why Robitaille cut short his celebrations Tuesday to catch a plane to Montreal and join other Kings executives in preparing for Friday's entry draft. There's work to be done on both the business and competitive sides, and he's ready to plunge in.

He spoke of "when" the Kings win the Cup, not "if," and his enthusiasm is strong enough to pierce the protective coat of skepticism that's part of every Kings fan's wardrobe.

"Even though I knew a lot of fans for years, I know more now and they deserve for us to make every effort to do that," he said. "I think we have a really good base now. It's about us putting every effort possible to win the Stanley Cup. We can't stop until we can do that.

"That's the reason I'm still involved with the team. Seriously. I know how special it will be the day we win it. I want to be involved with that team when that happens."

That day is two or three years away. Maybe more. But Robitaille never did listen to detractors and here he is, a Hall of Famer, eager to taste that champagne again.

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

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