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The difficulty of playing hockey in Los Angeles is that the city is fraught with distractions but not fraught with hockey. Most of the distractions are well-documented: the beaches, the sun, Heather Thomas. But recently the Los Angeles Kings had to deal with a new one when the NHL expelled the team's coach, Pat Quinn. That created a burst of media attention the likes of which the long-neglected Kings have rarely seen.
Finding themselves in the midst of the turmoil were Kings rookies Luc Robitaille and Jim Carson, who have been waging an intramural competition for Rookie of the Year honors. Despite the commotion, they remained unfazed, and each played a major role in helping the Kings score two wins and a tie and go undefeated for the week.
The success of Robitaille, 20, and Carson, at 18 the youngest player in the league, has been particularly gratifying to their mentor, Kings center Marcel Dionne. The second-leading scorer in NHL history, Dionne took the youngsters under his wing (in fact, Robitaille is his left wing) as soon as they arrived in town. It has proved to be a particularly profitable arrangement for the Kings and their once punchless offense: Robitaille leads all NHL rookies in scoring, and Carson ranks second.
Dionne's mother-henning came into full force after Quinn was suspended on Jan. 9 for signing a contract, while still coaching in L.A., to become president and general manager of the Vancouver Canucks next season. Quinn's assistant, Mike Murphy, stepped in as interim coach, and the media descended on the team.
On Tuesday, Jan. 13, supposedly a day off for the Kings. Robitaille and Carson were sitting in the Dionne home coolly handling long interviews with USA Today and, in both French and English, with Hockey Night in Canada. (Carson, whose family name originally was Kyriazopoulos, also speaks Greek.) The next night they were just as cool on the ice, as Robitaille had an assist in the Kings' 4-0 defeat of the visiting Canucks. Two nights later the rookies scored a goal apiece, and Carson added an assist in a 5-3 defeat of the Blues in St. Louis. Then, in a 4-4 tie with the Blues on Saturday, Robitaille netted his second goal of the week, and Carson was credited with two more assists.
Murphy says it's the youngsters' good attitudes that make his new responsibilities easier. "They're very strongcharactered young men," Murphy says. "They have thought about being professional hockey players for a long part of their lives, and they have as professional an attitude as I've ever seen. They are 9-to-5 kids; they'd stay on the ice all day if we didn't chase them off."
The two newcomers are making a shambles of the rookie scoring race, Robitaille amassing 28 goals and 53 points after 46 games, Carson 19 and 47. Buffalo's Christian Ruuttu is a distant third with 29 points, and only the goaltending of Philadelphia's Ron Hextall has kept the Rookie of the Year race from becoming strictly a Los Angeles affair.
Most significant, the pair has put life into the Kings. Last season Los Angeles finished last in the Smythe Division and a dismal 20th overall in the NHL, with only 23 wins and 54 points. This season the Kings already have 20 victories, are tied with Minnesota for ninth overall with 45 points, and are pushing toward the playoffs.
The L. A. power play has suddenly become something to reckon with because of the Kings kids. It was the lamest in the league last season, now it is third best with Robitaille, Carson and another rookie, defenseman Steve Duchesne, on point. Robitaille leads the team with 10 power-play goals, while Carson has 8.
Robitaille and Carson had been warned that playing hockey while living in L.A. would present difficulties and temptations. But with Dionne smoothing the way, even Robitaille, who is from Montreal, has had little problem handling the L.A. scene. "For me. it is easier" Robitaille says. "When we get out of practice, the sun is still shining. I think it's great."