Catching the Rocket on the alltime goals list is a humbling feat for the Kings' Luc Robitaille
Kings left wing Luc Robitaille approaches hockey with the enthusiasm of a kid skating on a Montreal pond, which he once was and which he seemingly became again last week when he talked of the NHL milestone he was on the verge of achieving. "I get so excited and then so humbled," said Robitaille, who through Sunday had 543 career goals, 19th in the NHL all-time rankings and one shy of tying Rocket Richard. "In a way it's embarrassing. I mean, he's the Rocket."
Richard retired six years before Robitaille was born in 1966, but growing up, Robitaille heard tales of Richard, a proud and mystical fellow Quebecker who scored 50 goals in 50 games in 1944-45, led the league in goal scoring five times and won eight Stanley Cups with the hometown Canadiens. "I heard about his eyes," said Robitaille. "How he could look right through goalies, bring fear into opponents just with his eyes."
To this day the 78-year-old Richard remains his country's most beloved and esteemed French Canadian hockey hero. He not only was the first Montreal native to win the Hart Trophy, in 1947, but was also a symbol of the Quebecois spirit. In '54-55 Richard slugged a linesman during a late regular-season game and was suspended through the playoffs by the NHL's Anglophone commissioner, Clarence Campbell, setting off the infamous Richard Riot. The five-hour uprising by 10,000 fans outside the Montreal Forum is regarded as a touchstone of the Quebec independence movement
Robitaille has had a magnificent career, thanks mostly to his supple hands, but he's a plodding skater who would never evoke memories of the supersonic Richard. What they share is a heritage. When Robitaille scored his 500th goal last season, Richard sent him a note saying, "It's good to see another little Quebecker get No. 500."
Robitaille cherishes that letter as well as the occasions, at the NHL All-Star Games of 1993 and '99, when Richard, who attended those matches, gazed upon him with those fabled eyes. "I can't remember what we talked about," says Robitaille. "I was in awe he even knew who I was."
Say Goodbye to Salt Lake City?
The NHL may have the world's best players, but it won't partake in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City without a little help from across the Atlantic. While the league's board of governors and the players' association want to go to the Winter Games, the IOC requires that the NHL gain approval from the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) before its players are allowed to compete. Last week four powerful members of the IIHF's executive council—the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden—joined forces to try to block the NHL's path to Salt Lake unless the league increases transfer payments to European federations. Those organizations have developed about one third of the players in the NHL, including many of its stars.
"We simply need more financial support if we are going to continue to develop players," says Swedish federation president Rickard Fagerlund. "We're not satisfied with the transfer fees we receive." The 11-member council, which also includes Austria, Canada, England, France, Japan, Switzerland and the U.S., passes measures by a majority vote. The four nations who are demanding concessions will almost certainly get at least two or more countries to follow their lead.
The NHL now pays the IIHF between $55 million and $6 million annually for player development. The IIHF then parcels out that money to individual federations in proportion to how many players a nation loses to the NHL. Last year 56 players bolted Europe for the NHL, meaning that individual federations got about $100,000 per player lost—far less than what it costs to replace him. The federations receive no compensation for the handful of players who jump to the Canadian junior leagues each year.