Tonight was a little piece of history for me, as the Sharks played the last game of the season against the L.A. Kings. It was the final game in a long, illustrious career for Luc Robitaille, future hall of fame Left Wing.
Tonight’s game was about what you’d expect; there wasn’t much at stake for either team, both sides were committed to not getting hurt, the Sharks skated many of their black aces, and spent much of the game passing it to Joe Thornton to set up Cheechoo for the shot. Other than Mark Smith, who has no off button, and a bit of grumpiness between Doug Murray and the king’s Tom Kostopolous (murray put him into the boards, Kostopolous responded with a crosscheck, and both agreed to meet at mid-ice, shedding equipment along the way — only to be met by the linesmen for 2 minutes each unsportsmanlike — which pleased pretty much nobody). The Ron Wilson seemed committed to giving everyone on the team a shift with Thornton and Cheechoo (except Toskala), so it was clear from the start that the Sharks had other priorities. It was, effectively, a pre-season game in intensity. Nabokov actually had a pretty good game (four goals allowed notwithstanding) given that in three of the cases, there wasn’t a teal jersey within about 15′ of him when the goal was scored. To say he was left to his own devices is an understatement. LaBarbera, however, was quite good when the Sharks got motivation, which was enough to cause the sharks to go back into “we don’t care so much” mode.
I broke tradition and to honor Luc, put on my Gold and FORUM BLUE (not purple!) jammies, um, Jersey, which caught me not a few snide comments and a visit from S.J. Sharkie, and even Sharkie gave me dispensation when he heard it was only for one night, for Luc (as a general policy, I never wear an away jersey of a visiting team, unless I’m pissed at Sharks management at that moment for some odd reason — I’ll either wear teal or something neutral).
People tend to forget that, for me, there were the Kings before there was a Sharks team. My collection includes a signed Rogie Vachon stick and a signed Dave Taylor puck, among other things, and a pair of Kings jerseys (the other is a silver and black Taylor). While Luc joined the Kings after I’d moved north out of Southern California, he was one of the players that came to represent that team for me — and I’ve never fully given up my roots in the sport as a Southern california beach kid who somehow came to love ice hockey. And Luc is really the last link back to the days of the Fantastic Forum, the Yellow and FORUM BLUE (not purple; Jack Kent Cooke hated purple); of being able to buy 12th row corner seats day of the game (Gretzky screwed that up); of showing up to find more visitor jerseys than King jerseys in the stands.
It’s probably the end of a second era in LA, since I fully expect Dave Taylor won’t survive as GM much longer, too. If there ever was a person who defined “Los Angeles Kings” for me, it was Taylor.
So for one night again, I was a Kings fan again. Luc didn’t score tonight, but he had some chances; to be honest, though, he had that look of someone who was a little overwhelmed at what was going on. That this was his last game seemed to be really sinking in. I think he spent as much time watching the fans as we did watching him. And once the game was over, his team came over and mobbed him and celebrated with him.
And then the Sharks did the damndest thing — they all lined up, and waited for Luc to walk the handshake line. And every one of them congratulated him on his life and career, and heads were whacked and hands were shaken and sticks were slapped on the ice, and the entire arena stood up, and we all became Kings fans for a few minutes, congratulating Luc.
And now I’m sitting here thinking — how many players in the league would get that kind of treatment? I can’t see, oh, Chris Chelios getting a standing ovation like that (Luc got two) in San Jose at the end of his career. Yzerman? Maybe. Pronger? (trick question).
But it seemed perfectly natural to do so tonight. And that’s because Luc is — not just another hockey player. As a member of the hockey community, as a role model to youth in LA and Quebec and throughout hockey, as simply the kind of person he is — he’s not just a King, but an ambassador to and for all of us who follow hockey. He is, in a way, the embodiment of why we become fans.
Never the fastest, or more graceful, of skaters, it didn’t come naturally to him. He worked his butt off to succeed, and never took success for granted. I remember early years in the history of San Jose where he’d just eat the Sharks alive — he didn’t just live in the slot, I remember writing about games where I’d said he’d built a vacation cabin there. But unlike other players that made the early years of being a Sharks fan hell, you respected this man; you couldn’t hate him.
And now he skates into the sunset (slowly and carefully). It’s interesting to note that there’s a new youngster on the ice, a guy by the name of Cheechoo, who has that same kind of skating quality, and also the same kind of drive to succeed and commitment to win; and willingness to accept the burden of role model in the same way Luc did. I’m looking forward to watching that kid for many years, and if he comes up to close to the success of Robitaille, then the Sharks are truly blessed.
So to Luc, god bless, and thanks for everything. The game will miss you — but you’ve left the game in a better condition than you came to it, and those you’ve touched, directly or indirectly, are better for having known you. Have a great life. You’ve earned it.
And to Dave Taylor, if you indeed do move on from GM of LA: thanks for being who you are, also. It’ll be sad to see the last direct link to my early life as a Kings fan finally break, if it happens. I’ve always been honored to call myself a fan of people like you (and Jim Fox, and Mark Hardy, and Rogie, and….).
And to the Sharks: great season. Off to Nashville, time to get back to work. There are still sixteen more games to win, and I’ll forgive this warmup if you don’t carry it into Nashville….
(and so some of the Sharks fans in attendance tonight: how can you profess to be surprised and disappointed at the play tonight? Like — you can look at the situation and schedule, and not guess that this game was going to be played that way? You’re better hockey fans than that…. Yeah, a win would have been nice but getting into the playoffs healthy and with the black aces given a tuneup is even more important….)
update: Kings have a press conference today where Dave Taylor is expected to be fired. That didn’t take long. I’m hearing that Dean Lombardi is shortlisted to replace him. Good for Dean: it’s time for him to take the reins again somewhere. Not so good for the Sharks, I don’t want San Jose having to battle a Lombardi-run team 8 times a year in division. (When Lombardi was fired in San Jose, from all I’ve heard, it was definitely time for him to move on; I fully expect, however, that what he learned in San Jose, and the perspective he likely picked up once he got over the immediate pain of being fired, will make him one hell of a GM at his next stop. He’s a great candidate for the Kings)