Robitaille Lays Out AHL California Story – Past, Present, Future

Robitaille LucSeveral years ago, Luc Robitaille did an interview on MayorsManor where he revealed thoughts of wanting to hold an outdoor game on the beach, likely near Hermosa or Redondo. It would be a pre-season game against the Ducks because he loved the idea of doing something cool to create a media buzz for Southern California hockey. Little did he know that concept would eventually lead to a game at historic Dodger Stadium in front of 50,000 fans.

Since being named the Kings’ President of Business Operations in 2007, the NHL’s highest scoring left wing has overseen plenty of other ideas met with initial skepticism – and even criticism – by outsiders. Yet, just like he did during his playing days, Robitaille just comes to work every day and puts in the effort necessary to achieve whatever goals have been set for his team.

Robitaille has led efforts to change the team’s jerseys, bring the NHL Draft to Los Angeles, improve the in-game experience at Staples Center, and has put his fingerprints on dozens of other facets related to the team’s imprint on LA’s sports landscape.

There are no border wars in the Kings front office, though. Robitaille handles the business side of things, while Dean Lombardi runs the other side of the house. Serving as General Manager and President of Hockey Operations, Lombardi is in full control of his domain and the results have been easy to measure, two Stanley Cups in three years.

The duo also have to work in sync at times, including on a multi-year undertaking that has landed the team’s top prospects a home in Ontario moving forward. This was a long road, filled with several twists and turns, but Robitaille remains steadfast that, in the end, it was all worth it.

“We started with eight teams, years ago,” he said, confirming the original report on MayorsManor, from when we first broke the story last March. “Then, we narrowed it down to literally four teams about two years ago. From that point, there was never a question if this was going to happen. It was more when, because it is a lot easier when you have a smaller group. Then it became five teams. If you ask me, did I have any doubt it was going to happen? No. I think it was more the timing that we were never one hundred percent sure. It’s just a lot easier to make the deal and arrange the dates with four teams. The funny thing is, part of the four team plan included Phoenix and they’re not even here yet. They are looking to buy a team, though.”

The Coyotes are one of three teams that will likely be joining the AHL’s new Pacific Division shortly, perhaps as early as 2016-17. Vancouver and Colorado, who were part of the original eight, continue to like the idea, with the Avalanche believed to be closer to putting a team in Colorado Springs than the Canucks are to making a move with their affiliate.

One of the more intriguing nuggets mentioned in our initial article last year was the fact that the five teams were ready to start their own league if the AHL wasn’t willing to go along with the Western invasion. Robitaille couldn’t confirm if that notion helped sway the AHL to go along with the idea or not.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I wouldn’t say the word pressure, but I think for our organization, for our fans, and honestly, our General Manager also, it was imperative that we came to the west coast. We were willing to do it at whatever level, but it’s a lot better to do it with the AHL because it is a great league. It’s an established league and it was the right thing to do. But that being said, if you ask Dean or Bob Murray [of Anaheim] or Doug Wilson [of San Jose] or Brian Burke [in Calgary], we all knew it would be a disadvantage not to be on the west coast with our farm teams.”

Jokingly, we had to ask Robitaille if having a second team to keep an eye on could drive the already hyper-focused and extremely intense Lombardi to the point of insanity.

“No, not at all,” he said with one of his trademark laughs. “I think for him it’s going to make his life a lot easier because if the Kings are not playing well, he’s just going to go watch our team in the AHL.”

On a more serious note, the benefits of having your top prospects so close does seem to be extremely logical and the right move for business.

“It’s just the reality of things; for our players, it’s a lot of fun,” Robitaille explained. “You’re able to have communication with the young guys. When you’re a player in the minor leagues, if you see your GM every week, or every two weeks, or you see the assistant GM every week, there’s more communication. You’re going to learn a lot more, a lot quicker, than if the guy comes once every month. It’s hard. With Manchester, it’s a long flight and we’ve got to adjust. But when it’s Ontario, we can just drive 45 minutes—we can go watch the game, talk to the guy and go back to our regular bed that night.”

One of the many concerns Robitaille and the Kings have tried their best to mitigate is the collateral damage pulling their AHL affiliate of Manchester would cause. There was no getting around some of the issues, so the best they could do was try to limit them. For example, to show their commitment to the city, the Monarchs just signed a new long-term lease to stay in the same building. Yes, they will be an ECHL affiliate now, but the Kings remain committed to New Hampshire.

“We added five years, so we intend to be there for a long time,” noted Robitaille. “We think, the market, they’ll like it. They’re going to be able to know their players longer there. The players will be different, but I think like the Ontario fans saw, each team has their own local players who end up living in the area. They do a lot in the community. ECHL guys can play there four or five years and they become like local stars. Sometimes, you’re able to do that in the ECHL better than you would in the AHL.”

Back home in California, Robitaille continues to define his off-ice legacy, leading the Kings organization into bigger, bolder places that were once inconceivable.

“I think this is one of the greatest things for the growth of hockey, obviously in California, but [also] in the western part of the United States,” he proudly stated. “The fact that we have more teams playing in California now is only going to help the growth. There are going to be more kids who want to play, more parents are going to be watching the games. I love the game of hockey. I remember [Wayne] Gretzky used to say, ‘It’s the greatest game in the world and we need to share it.’ We’ve come a long way from when Wayne came and we only had one team. I think now with the three California teams that compete the way they do and now having five teams in California that are going to play in the triple-A system, to use a baseball comparison, it’s amazing. We still have a lot more plans and fans are going to be in for a real treat. It’s all part of the big plan of the growth of hockey.”

3 MUST-READ ARTICLES:

LA Kings 2014-15 Midseason Prospect Rankings: The Top 5

Robitaille on Management Changes in Ontario

UPDATE: Where Things Stand as NHL Teams Prep for AHL West

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