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."
"You have to have a little discipline." says Carson. "A lot of this has to do with how Luc and" I were brought up. We both come from conservative, religious families."
They were also brought up playing hockey. Robitaille naturally dreamed of a career with the Canadiens. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. After a year in the Quebec junior league, he was drafted in the ninth round of the 1984 entry draft by the Kings, whose Forum is 2.500 miles away from the one in Montreal.
Robitaille admits he was all limbs and not much of a skater back then. "I read one time that I'm slower than the Zamboni," he recalls. "I thought that was funny." Robitaille filled out and improved his skating. Last year he had 63 goals and 123 assists for Hull and was Canada's Junior Player of the Year.
Carson grew up in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., attending school with "the Strohs and lots of Fords." but going his own way when it came to sports. "The kids I grew up with played tennis or went to the country club." Carson says. "I played hockey or was at the Red Wing games." Carson's father, Chuck, a tax attorney, operated family-owned parking lots across the street from Olympia Stadium, the home of the Red Wings before they moved to Joe Louis Arena. His son became a rink rat. "I acted like I owned the place," Jim says. That included sometimes cajoling Carol Dionne, the wife of the team's young star, into letting him sit on her lap at games. "And now she's cooking my meals." Carson says.
Dionne more or less set Carson, then just five, off on his eventual career when the boy was given one of Dionne's old sticks. It finally broke in a Grosse Pointe Mite game, and Chuck Carson remembers his son ignoring the puck and chasing the blade down the ice. "I cried and cried and cried," Jim says of that day. "I thought the world had ended." Far from it. Ten years later. Carson was starring for the Detroit Compuware Midgets when he was contacted by the Verdun Junior Canadiens. It took some talking, but Carson left Grosse Pointe to play in the Quebec juniors. After two years with Verdun, the Kings made him the No. 2 pick in the draft last June.
Robitaille's relationship with Dionne did not begin until last year, though he is quick to say that his kindergarten teacher back in Montreal was Marcel's aunt. When he and Carson reported to training camp in Victoria, B.C., he learned his roomie would be the great man himself. "I went to sleep before Marcel got there," Robitaille says. "In the morning I looked out of the corner of my eye at the other bed. 'There he is, there he is. What am I going to say?' "
As it turned out, quite a bit. Robitaille and Carson would stay up late each night asking questions and listening to Dionne talk hockey. "We had to kick Jim out at night," Dionne says. Duchesne often joined the group, becoming the third member of what is coming to be known as the Dionne Triplets.
When camp broke, Dionne invited Robitaille to stay at his house. As for Carson, Carol Dionne says. "How could we throw him out? He can barely burn toast." Marcel called a neighbor at 10:30 one night and asked, "How would you like to have a hockey player stay with you?" Done. The rookies frequently car-pool with Dionne, and the three always have their pregame meal together—Carol's spaghetti with meat sauce—when they play at home.
Dionne has taught the two rookies lessons that took him years to learn. For example: "I know how Marcel has made it 16 seasons in the NHL," Robitaille says. "Plenty of rest."
They have followed his advice well. On the night before the Kings game with Vancouver last week. Robitaille took his girlfriend, Martine St. Clair, to a Huey Lewis concert. Though it was the best News he had heard all week, Robitaille left at 10 p.m. "I think that was a good move," Robitaille said later. "The next night, we won."
Somewhere, Papa Marcel must have been smiling.