Throwback Thursdays – An Interview w/ Robb Stauber

For an organization that five years ago had zero credibility when it came to developing goaltenders, the Kings have made quite the turn around under the direction of GM Dean Lombardi and Assistant GM Ron Hextall.

Today, goaltending is a strength…with names like Quick, Bernier, Zatkoff, Jones and Berube set to man the nets next season for the Kings and their various affiliates.

However, the Kings had a shot at something similar at least once before.  Case in point, in 1986 the team drafted Robb Stauber out of high school.  Before arriving in LA he had a stellar college hockey career at the University of Minnesota - becoming the first goalie to ever win the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s player of the year (and he did it as a sophomore!). His teams also made it to the Frozen Four three straight years.

Then, after Robb spent a few more seasons developing in the minors, he began battling Kelly Hrudey for the starting job during the 1992-93 campaign, winning 15 games in 31 regular season appearances.

While Hrudey is fondly remembered as being the man during the Kings run to the Stanley Cup Finals that same year, he had plenty of praise for Stauber and his role on the team when I interviewed him last year – saying things like “Robb had played so strong he deserved the action he was getting too.”

Specifically, on Stauber’s performance in the opening round of the ’93 playoffs versus Calgary, Hrudey added “We were down 2-1 in the series. Robb (came in and) played in game four and we won 2-1 to even the series. Barry (Melrose) stuck with Robb in games five and six…He won the series.”

Just one year later, the Kings drafted Jamie Storr 7th overall at the 1994 NHL Draft – after he won a gold medal for Team Canada at the ’94 World Junior Championships.  He backed it up with another gold medal at the ’95 WJC.  Goaltending should have been set for years to come.

What happened?  What went wrong?

We first posted an interview with Robb back in April, where he helped preview this year’s NCAA Frozen Four Championship game and talked about his days playing college hockey.

This time around, we’re talking more about his time with the Kings - from first joining the team to the multiple goalie controversies of ’93, coach Barry Melrose, life in the minor leagues, Rogie Vachon, Jonathan Quick, Jamie Storr, Dominik Hasek, being known as “Blueline” and the real reason why he was traded…

In the last interview we talked about the possible negative impact of Jamie Storr playing in the NHL while he was still a teenager.  More recently, Lombardi and the Kings have been careful not to make the same mistake with Jonathan Bernier.  Instead, they’ve been pretty insistent on bringing him along slowly.  Talk about some of the mental pressure when you’re that young… 

With Jamie I think it was a timing thing.  It was a mistake to throw a young guy to the wolves like that.  I can sort of relate when I look back over my career.  Actually, my first year, I was hurt a few months to start the season, so I spent time in Los Angeles doing therapy.  Then, they sent me to the minors in January or February and I played great the first few weeks.  It was like I never missed a beat, like I was back in college.  The Kings were struggling at the time - I think Hrudey was hurt, Ron Scott wasn’t playing well and some other stuff was going on.  They called me up to meet the team in Winnipeg.

I played two games and I played like crap. I just wasn’t ready for the pace.  If I had been broken in a little slower, I really believe it would have been different.  You know, spend some time with them, get to know them in practice…then, throw somebody in after you know the guys and they know how you compete in practice.  It’s just not a position where you take somebody and throw them in.  When they sent me back down, Marcel Comeau (his AHL coach at the time) even said to me “I told them not to call you up.  It was just too early.”

In 1993 you went to the Finals with the Kings.  Just 16 months later there was the NHL lockout and then soon after things started back up in February of ’95 you were traded to Buffalo.  What happened during that time period?

I recall the scenario where I had a discussion with Barry Melrose in Sam McMaster‘s office (the Kings GM at the time).  I was very frustrated with some of things going on…not with the team so much, but my personal situation.  I had broken my finger in ’95 right when the season started.  I think it was the second shot in the first game back, I broke my finger on a slap shot.  So I missed four or five weeks until I was cleared to play.  When I was finally ready to go they were going to send me down for conditioning.  Honestly, for all the weeks I was out, I never missed a practice.  So, I went in and said “Look, I may not have taken a lot of shots, but I never missed a practice.  I’m in fine condition and I want to make this road trip.”  Maybe I said it a little different language though.  I said “This isn’t going to work.  I’m not going.  I’ve been around.  I’ve been in in the minors.  I’ve been here.  I can play at this level.”

Huddy, Alex Zhitnik and I were traded to Buffalo for Grant Fuhr.

Obviously, going to Buffalo and playing behind (Dominik) Hasek, he was absolutely at the top of his game.  That guy was incredible then and for many more years after.  There wasn’t much room for me there.

You played three more seasons in the AHL after that and had spent time in the IHL previously.  Talk a little about how different life is in the minors versus being in the NHL.

Minor league hockey is probably what most people imagine.  It’s a lot of road trips.  It’s getting in late at night and having to play the next day.  Back then there were many times you would play seven games in ten nights.  You felt like a piece of meat.  You can be hurt, all sorts of things, but you have to play.  It’s meant to eliminate the weak…at least for the NHL.  You have to be able to grind it out.  Again, I’m talking about what it was like back then, it may have changed by now.

I remember when I was in New Haven (one of the Kings AHL affiliates in the pre-Manchester days), I think it was my second year, we were on like a 17 or 21 day road trip across Canada.  We were on a bus every day and it was grind, grind, grind.  You’re getting your butt kicked and you’re getting in late.  We clearly weren’t eating NHL food.  We might stop on the way, who knows, maybe at a McDonald’s.  Then, when you get to the NHL you’re not eating that food.  You have a better travel schedule, the best trainers, massages…it’s totally, totally different.  Not that their heart isn’t in the right place in the minors – you’re just dealing with a totally different budget and a totally different mentality.  I enjoyed it though, I was still playing hockey.  I was getting paid to play a game I loved.

During all those years in the minors, which city was your favorite to play in?

I loved the history of the East Coast cities.  Like Rochester, the old War Memorial.  They’d let the fans drink a lot of beer and they’d get quite rowdy.  It kinda reminded me of the movie Slap Shot.  Fortunately, I was able to play there as an opponent and later as a member of the team in Rochester – so I got to see both sides of it.  I also liked playing in Hershey, it had a good feel.  I really liked the travel in the East because most of the cities are just a few hours apart, so you’d be home by two in the morning after playing a game.

Back to Los Angeles - what’s your earliest memory of joining the Kings organization?

My first NHL game.  We were in Winnipeg and I was scored on three times, twice in the first couple of minutes.  One of them was a breakaway where he made me look silly.  It was like 3-nothing before you knew it.  They pulled me and put Kelly (Hrudey) in for the second period.  Then it was like 6-0 or 6-1.  They put me back in for the third and the final ended up 9-3.  They played me a couple nights later in Calgary and I was doubting myself.  I don’t remember the exact thoughts in my head, but I know I wasn’t feeling confident when we stepped onto the ice.  We lost 5-2 and I played, maybe, a hair better than the first game.

Afterwards, (then GM) Rogie Vachon called me up to his suite at the hotel.  This was right at the trade deadline.  In his French accent – and I like him a lot – he said “Rub, we’re going to send you down and call you back up right away.”  He explained how things worked - with the trade deadline, how they were going to call me back up for emergency recall, no problems, no worries.  That was the last I heard from the Kings for three years.  I felt like I was a goner.  I think they lost so much confidence in me.  It was not a real good start to say the least.  He said “We’re calling you back up.”  I guess he just meant three years later (he laughs).

A few minutes ago you talked about playing in old buildings.  With the Kings, you played at the old Forum – a place they moved out of in ’99. Have you been to Staples Center?

Yes, many years ago.  It was neat to walk in as a fan, rather than a player.  There was such an excitement around the new building.  The Kings will always have a soft spot with me.  I don’t care about being traded and all that stuff.  They drafted me and I don’t have any bad feelings.  Playing in LA with the greatest player in the world at the time, it doesn’t get much better.

When you were in LA the fans loved your aggressive style, the nickname Blueline, the whole thing. Did coaches and/or teammates ever tell you to just calm down and stay in the net?

No.  For me personally, as a player, I enjoyed playing for Barry Melrose.  Right after he was named the coach in the summer of ’92 I got a phone call from him.  His exact words were “I’ve seen you play.  I know what you can do.  Get ready to play in 30 games.”  That was all I needed to hear.  Got it!  He had seen me play for several years in the minors – I had played against him – he knew I was aggressive.  He probably had even seen a more aggressive style.  I took more risks there than I did in the NHL.  That was just the way I played.  I was very active.  He had seen me act as a forward or a defenseman.  He had no problem with it.

My gut told me that I had to play well right away when I got to camp that fall.  The door was open.  I had somebody who believed in me.  Now, I needed to go through that door.  We played in Vancouver.  I think we were out shot like 55-19. No kidding.  We tied 4-4 or 5-5.  Barry came in when I was stretching after the game and said “Just like the minors, huh?”  I told myself to keep pushing hard and I knew I was going to make the team.  I think I went undefeated through the preseason and the first month or so of the regular season.

Often times he would say to me “I know when you’re not in the game.  When you’re not out and handling the puck, that’s when I’m going to get upset.”  So, he encouraged me to use, what he felt, were my strengths.  It felt pretty good knowing that even though I’d mess up every once and awhile, the coach had my back.

Some of the other players might have thought I was nuts, but that was the only way I knew how to play.

Who taught you the famous blueline pad stack or how did you develop that idea?

I did it all on my own.  It wasn’t something I ever saw.  I don’t think guys were doing it before then.  I just knew what my strengths were.  I could skate well and I could handle the puck well.   I had been taught that from my youth coach and I remember him telling me at six years old “You’re going to be able to skate and handle the puck.  I don’t know anything about goaltending, but you’ll be able to do those two things.” 

Every day as a goalie I was skating and moving the puck.  I realized that by moving I could catch a guy with his head down.  It doesn’t matter how you stop the puck.  I thought if a situation presented itself, I should take the shot away from the other player because the odds were in my favor.  I didn’t care about the rebound.  I wanted to eliminate the first shot.  It worked for me because I believed in it.

How about other coaches.  You had also played for legendary coach Herb Brooks (coach of the USA’s 1980 Miracle team).  What did he think?

In ’86 at an All Star game in Chicago, I think it was Phil Esposito’s kid who had a breakaway - he cuts around the D and I flat laid him out.  After the game Herb said “Stauber you can’t play like that” and I said “What do you mean?”  I had done that for many years.  In fact, two months earlier at the High School State Tournament – where Herb was part of the announce team – I had done it three or four times.  I often wonder if, knowing the way Herb liked to challenge players, I wonder if he was just challenging me to be a better player and trying to get more out of me.

There was another time we were up in Boston playing in a tournament against guys like Brian Leetch and Craig Janney.  This was one of his favorite stories too.  We weren’t supposed to beat those guys up there.  We’re playing Massachusetts and we’re getting blown out in the first period and he pulls me.  I skate off and go to the end of the bench.  I take my helmet off and I’m pissed.  He said “What are you upset about?”  I said “I don’t know, my timing…” He said “You’re going back in.”  Later on, he put me back in and we ended up winning in a shootout, something like 10-9.  So, he would tell me that I couldn’t do it, but he’d play me too.  That was just the way he coached.

I’ll never know if he would have remembered the things he said to me, but I still wish I would have asked him.  I spoke to him just before he passed away, but I didn’t have the guts to ask him about it.  I had thought about it for so long.  At one point after he said “You can’t do that,” I remember thinking “What does he know about goaltending? He may have won a gold medal, but he never played goalie.  So, he can’t tell me what to do!”  (he laughs)  I never got to ask him though.  But, my gut tells me he liked it.

Circling back to the Kings, after the strong start in ’92, what were you thinking when they brought in Rick Knickle in February of ’93?  Here comes a guy from the lowest level of the minor leagues and the Kings ended up giving him a fair number of starts down the stretch. What was going through your mind?

Here’s what I think…  Barry was trying to get more out of his goalies.  He thought we could play better.  I think he was not afraid to use psychology in his coaching.  He would do whatever he thought would make his team better.  If that meant calling in a guy and playing him, then that’s what he’d do.

I recall Rick playing.  But, he eventually worked out of the rotation as the season was winding down.  Over the last two weeks of the regular season I was playing my best hockey and I got the start for the last game of the year against Vancouver.  It was at home in LA and I stunk it up.  We got beat 6-2 and I was absolutely terrible, couldn’t stop a thing.

I knew I had hurt my chances to play in the playoffs, but I was still hopeful that Barry would see through it.  However, the day before the first game he told me I wasn’t going to play, nor was I going to suit up for the game.  Hrudey would start and Rick would back him up.  I was livid.  He said “You had your chance.  You were going to start the playoffs.” We ended up screaming at each other, back and forth.  Cap Raeder (assistant coach) probably thought we were going to start fighting.  On the way out I had a few more things to say to him and I shut the door…loudly.

It turns out we were down in the series 2-1 and after the practice before game four Barry announced his line-up, finishing with “Stauber, you’re starting.”  We went on to win three straight games.  Then, I played the fist game of the next series against Vancouver.  After we lost that one, Barry called me in and said “Robb, you’ve done everything I’ve asked.  I’m proud of you.  But, I feel like I gotta make a change.”  He was very kind about it.  I said “I respect it” and Kelly went on to have the run of a lifetime.

It was one of the greatest memories because I went from thinking I might have a chance to start in the NHL playoffs, which is any goalie’s dream – to not playing at all and then coming from the stands to help the team advance to the second round.  It was something special.  I have a lot of respect for Barry Melrose.  He did everything he said he was going to do and he was fair.  We fought at times.  But, when you made a good point he would look at you and say “You’re right.” As a player, if I played bad, when I came into the locker room and looked at him, I felt like I let him down. 

That’s one of the best things to have with a coach.  When you feel like your coach feels enough about you and you care enough about him and what he stands for, that if you don’t play up to your abilities, you feel like you let him down.  I respect Barry a ton.  I never felt slighted.  He was fair to me.

After that final regular season game you just mentioned, Melrose was quoted on the loss saying “I think I expect more out of Robb Stauber than Robb Stauber expects out of himself.”

I think that’s how he wanted me to feel.  But, we were in it together.  I felt bad when I let him down and like I said in the televised interview immediately following my first game in the Calgary series “Barry Melrose doesn’t need to embarrass me to get me to play my best.”  When I’m not at my best, I’m embarrassed for me.  Barry can believe that what he did was right.  But, that’s not what drives me to be my best.

You clearly helped the Kings beat the Flames in the first round.  However, Hrudey was back in net when the team won the second series and for the rest of the playoffs.  Do you ever think your importance to the team gets lost in whole story of that year as fans look back on it now?

Probably.  But, I’m not too worried about it.  It was a great run by the Kings that year.  Look at Game 7 - what do you think people are going to remember Game 7 in Toronto (Western Conference Finals) or the goaltending controversy in the first round?  You also had Marty’s illegal stick, that many would say turned the momentum of the series against Montreal.  So, there’s a lot to member in that run…like I’m sure there is with every team that wins or loses in the Finals.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Ah, Memories.  They’re important.

And people should remember that without Robb Stauber, there may not be a Game 7 or a Finals to still be talking about all these years later.

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OTHER ARTICLES OF INTEREST:

Hugging the Post with Hrudey – The Mayor interviews Kelly Hrudey

High / Low with Kelly Hrudey – his thoughts on the other teams in the West and which players he would take if starting his own NHL franchise

Interview with Robb Stauber – talking college hockey, the Hobey Baker Award, former Kings Jamie Storr and Corey Millen, his goaltending school and much more

Interview with Luc Robitaille – 20 questions with #20

Interview with Rob Blake – the most divisive player in Kings history, love him or hate him?

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