Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.
In the summer of 2019, Luc Robitaille walked the Camino de Santiago with his wife, Stacia, for the second time. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage of medieval origin, and the final destination is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galizia, in the northwest of Spain. Stacia Robitaille did the entire 660 miles of the Camino in 2013, interrupting her pilgrimage only once — to fly to Montreal to attend the funeral of Luc’s mother — and then returned to Spain to complete the journey.
People walk the Camino for religious, spiritual and cultural reasons, or even simply as a fitness challenge. Robitaille, president of the Los Angeles Kings, Hall of Fame player and No. 40 on The Athletic’s list of the 100 greatest players of the post-expansion NHL, usually can’t get away for more than two weeks at a time most summers, so they’ve walked two separate legs of the Camino and eventually intend to go back for a third time, once his schedule permits.
Stacia Robitaille kept a diary of the first time she and Luc walked the Camino together and published it as a blog. It details what a hard slog it can be, even for former professional athletes.
“The Camino is so long, so when you wake up in the morning, you just go,” said Robitaille. “What it reminds me of is being a kid. Remember how when you got out of bed in the morning when you were young and it was summer? How the days seemed so long and lasted forever? When you were in the Camino, that’s how it felt.
“I loved that part. These days, when we go hiking, I sometimes forget that because you start thinking about work or something else, and the next thing you know, the hike is over, and you realize, ‘Oh sh–, I should have enjoyed it more.’
“Stacia and the Camino taught me that: How to stay in the moment.”
When Robitaille retired in 2006, he was the highest goal-scoring left winger in NHL history (since surpassed by Alex Ovechkin). In all, Robitaille scored 668 NHL goals, 13th best all time, and 1,394 NHL points, good for 24th all time.
Robitaille’s career spanned some of the highest-scoring years in league history, but it was also an era in which the area in front of the net was largely unregulated by NHL referees.
Every day was a battle, and the players who made their living scoring goals from close quarters absorbed punishment, night after night.
The Kings wore purple and gold uniforms in Robitaille’s early years. Most of that time, the predominant colors on Robitaille’s body were black and blue.
He had pretty-boy good looks from the neck up, which sometimes obscured the pure grit needed to go to the hard areas of the ice to score all those goals.
Robitaille’s hockey journey — like the Camino de Santiago — followed an unlikely, winding path.
He was originally selected by the Kings in the ninth round of the 1984 NHL Draft, famously five rounds after baseball Hall of Famer Tom Glavine. But three years later, in 1987, Robitaille became the first (and thus far only) Kings player to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year.
From junior hockey on, he was first known for his playmaking and then eventually for his goal scoring.
Skating, on the other hand, was not his strongest suit. (Even at 39, he spent a summer taking power-skating classes in a bid to squeeze out an extra season.) That devotion to learning — and trying to get better — may explain how a boy from a working-class family in Montreal became the toast of Los Angeles and now has a statue honoring his career outside Crypto.com Arena.
Robitaille played three seasons of junior hockey for the Hull Olympique under legendary coach Pat Burns, which is when a reporter from a Quebec tabloid once described his skating style as “slower than the Zamboni” — a fun fact that Robitaille unhesitatingly shared with reporters during his rookie season with the Kings. That year, two difference-making prospects made the Kings. One was highly regarded — Jimmy Carson, second overall in the 1986 draft. The other was Robitaille.
As a fellow Francophone, Marcel Dionne took Robitaille under his wing. Robitaille lived with the Dionnes and Dionne talked his next-door-neighbors into billeting Carson. Dionne took an interest in the “Goal-Dust Twins” because of their singular devotion to hockey.
“As Marcel got older, he just wanted to win,” said Robitaille. “Every time the Kings had a high pick, Marcel would ask these guys, ‘What are you hoping to do here?’ And they’d say something like: ‘I want to be on the beach, or I want to go to Hollywood.’ When Marcel asked me, my answer was: ‘I’d like to live in a boarding house because I really don’t want to think about anything except hockey.’ Jimmy Carson told him the same thing. And Marcel said that was the first time a kid had ever said that to him.
“After that, we were always with Marcel and Dave Taylor. For some other guys — let’s face it, in those days, it was more important to win the stupid softball tournament in Niagara Falls in the summer. I just wanted to play hockey. People from back home would ask me, ‘How’s LA?’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t know. I live with Marcel. I go to the practice rink, I come home, I sleep, I wake up and I go to the next game.’”
Robitaille was entering his third NHL season in the summer of 1988 when the Kings acquired his idol, Wayne Gretzky, in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. In negotiations for the rights to Gretzky, the Oilers inquired about Robitaille but were told he was unavailable.
Instead, it was Carson, the other rising star of the organization, who was dispatched to Edmonton. Gretzky’s arrival immediately changed the Kings’ fortunes — and their visibility. Slowly, hockey began to develop roots in Southern California. In 1993, the Kings qualified for the Stanley Cup Final, losing a five-game series against a Montreal Canadiens team led by Patrick Roy.
Robitaille eventually did get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup as a member of the 2002 Detroit Red Wings, a team that featured 10 players who would make it to the Hall of Fame. He was also the Kings’ president of business operations when they won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014.
Robitaille was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009 and, since 2014, has served as one of 18 members of the HHOF selection committee. In 2017, the 100th anniversary of the league, he was named one of the NHL’s 100 greatest players.
Robitaille’s earliest memories of hockey involve playing on the street and in the schoolyards, not on the ice, which is probably why his skating lagged, but his puckhandling skills developed so well.
“What people don’t realize is how much we played with a ball,” said Robitaille. “We didn’t have a lot of money. My dad owned a scrapyard, so he would cut the seat of an old car and then we’d use the foam and three rubber bands to make the goalie pads from that. We would play with a tennis ball, and the best balls were the ones with no hair. They’d be worn down to the rubber and wouldn’t bounce as much.
“Right around Christmas, when it got cold enough, they would put boards up in the park and then the firemen would come with the hose and make ice. I would go out and play with my brother, and as it got later in the day, the older kids would come out. I loved playing with the older kids. I knew if I gave them the puck, they would play with me. So, I learned to be a playmaker. In junior, I was more known as a playmaker than a scorer.”
In the beginning, Robitaille’s goals were modest — he hoped, at some point, to be able to play major junior in Quebec. The NHL wasn’t on his horizon. Everything ultimately changed in the summer of 1986 when Robitaille attended Team Canada’s world junior team tryout camp in Belleville, Ont. Forty players were invited, and Robitaille wasn’t one of them. But at the 11th hour, an injury prevented Stephane Richer from attending, so Burns — his coach in Hull — called him up and asked him if he wanted to go.
“I said, ‘Sure.’ This was my Stanley Cup,” said Robitaille. “I get there. I remember there were seven scrimmages and at the end of the week, I led the group in scoring. So, I made them invite me for the Christmas main camp.”
Robitaille made the team and had eight points in seven games as Canada won a silver medal. He finished his junior season in Hull with an eye-popping 191 points in 63 regular-season games, and added 44 more in 15 playoff games.
“But that world junior was the turning point of my career,” said Robitaille, “because the pace was so fast at that tournament that coming back into junior, it seemed so much slower. I think there were 27 games left and I scored about 100 points — almost four points a game.”
As unimaginable as a Hall of Fame NHL career would have been to Robitaille as a child, his current position — as president of the Kings — would have equally been beyond the reach of his imagination.
Back when Robitaille was growing up in Montreal, the president of the Canadiens was Ronald Corey. Nowadays, team presidents are sequestered in private suites, high above the ice surface. In Corey’s day, he sat directly behind the Canadiens’ bench, keeping a close eye on the team.
To the teenage Robitaille, being president of the Canadiens was not all that different from being the prime minister of Canada.
Royalty, of a kind.
“I would have never ever thought I could do that,” said Robitaille, who explained that the same thought process that went into learning to become a better hockey player also taught him how to become a business executive.
“My biggest thing is … I wasn’t as good a player as the other guys; that’s what I believed,” said Robitaille. “So in the dressing room, I was always a student. I studied every player. You could have asked me about every player in the league, what stick they used and how they taped it, and I probably knew the answer. I knew details. Some guys were so talented, they didn’t need to be students. Gretz was the best student I’ve ever seen. You could ask Gretz everybody’s stats in a game, and he knew.
“When I got into management, I promised myself I would never forget what it felt like to be a player because in the dressing room, I was always a student. I’m still excited about learning something every day. I told my son the other day, ‘Experience is learning from the things you messed up.’ He laughed. He’d never heard it put exactly that way before.”
The Robitailles first learned about the Camino de Santiago, from a movie called “The Way” starring Martin Sheen. Luc and Stacia were in a hotel, and they fell asleep watching the movie two or three nights in a row, but they kept coming back to it. The COVID-19 pandemic put on hold their plans to do a further leg of the pilgrimage together.
When they have been out walking it together, Stacia doesn’t mind roughing it a little. That’s harder for Luc.
“With me, she finds hotels,” he said, with a laugh. “With her, she did the hostels. We did a couple of hostels, so I could get a feel for it. Some of the little towns along the way were built as way stations for the Camino. People used to sleep in the churches in these farming towns.”
These days, for exercise, Robitaille is mostly a walker. He and Stacia will go out early with their dogs to hike.
“My back was bad at the end of my career and I have two pins in my ankle, so I can’t run,” he said. “I’ll ride the stationary bike, but if I have the choice, I’ll go outside and hike. It’s really important to keep doing something. Some of the hockey ops guys work out in the afternoon, but I don’t always have the time to do that. Hiking is outdoors — it’s a different feeling.”
Robitaille’s nickname is Lucky — and admits he has led a charmed life.
At the age of 56, he doesn’t stop very often to reflect on the past, because he’s mostly interested in what’s coming around the next corner. But there were moments when the realization hit him — just how far he’d come.
One such moment came during the 1999-00 season when Robitaille was on an NHL-sponsored conference call with reporters.
“A reporter came on from Montreal,” remembered Robitaille, “and he asked, ‘How’s it going to feel to pass the Rocket (for career goals by a left wing)?’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. But Rocket Richard had scored 544 career goals and I was at something like 542. That hit me. I thought, ‘I can’t pass the Rocket! I mean, he’s the Rocket!’ Then there was Guy Lafleur at 560 — that was big. Bobby Hull was a moment, too — 610. But passing the Rocket, that was The Moment.”
Robitaille was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, something he came to appreciate more once he was actually in the Great Hall in Toronto for the first time and started looking around at all the individual plaques. All of his hockey-playing heroes were there.
“Getting into the Hall of Fame isn’t something you think about when you start out,” said Robitaille. “That was a shocking moment the first time I went because you realize, ‘That’s it. There’s not a lot of people here.’ The other moment is … joining the (HHOF) selection committee. I remember calling my dad (Claude) after that happened. I said to him, ‘Dad, do you remember how, when I was playing hockey and we’d go see the junior games? Some of those guys, like Mario (Lemieux) and Pat LaFontaine, ended up in the Hall of Fame.’
“Now, all these years later, I get to help pick who goes into the Hall of Fame. I mean, you grow up, you want to play hockey, then you get to the NHL, then to the Hall of Fame — and the next thing you know, you get to pick who gets in the Hall of Fame. For some reason, to me, that’s the greatest honor.”
(Top photo: Focus on Sport / Getty Images)