Thursday, October 20, 2011

During his playing career, including the 200 games spent with the Hershey Bears, Louis Robitaille was a master at getting under the skin of his opponents and goaded numerous victims into taking penalties that they ordinarily would not take. Robitaille’s unique riling talents were not limited to the ice-- he often drew the ire of his own coaches for his tactics, including current Washington Capitals head coach, Bruce Boudreau, when he and Robitaille were both with the Bears.

Boudreau, in fact, was once quoted as saying, “Louis is a guy that you hate when he’s on the other team, but hate him a little less when he’s on yours.” So it probably came as a bit of a surprise to Boudreau and a few of Robitaille’s other bench bosses when over the summer, after playing in an AHL career low 50 games with the Albany Devils last season, he decided to retire as a player and become a head coach.

"It was always in mind that I wanted to be a coach when my career was over, and last year was a difficult one for me with me being an AHL veteran,” said Robitaille, who coaches the Valleyfield Braves, a Quebec Junior AAA Hockey League club.

“With my son now being three and a half, I thought it was the right time for me to start a new career. I’m still at a relatively young age (29), and I still have the passion for the game and I miss playing, but after going through a couple of interviews over the summer and talking it over with my family, I thought it was the right thing to do."

Currently, very early in his rookie season guiding the Braves, Robitaille’s charges are off to a wonderful 6-1-1 start. It should be of no surprise to fans of the Bears and Capitals who Robitaille revealed which of his former coaches influenced him the most.

“I would say the two coaches that I try to model are Bruce (Boudreau) and John MacLean. I was involved with Bruce for three years in Hershey and with me staying in Hershey over the summer; I could tell how dedicated he always was to his job. Bruce was also a player’s coach and he never looked at is as how many hours it was he was putting into doing his job, but he put in whatever time that it took to make himself a well prepared coach.”

“I’m still learning, but that’s the way I’m doing this job. I’m putting a lot of hours into it to make it work, and if you look at our team right now, we basically play the same system that Washington does.”

Throughout his Hershey career, Robitaille was often criticized for his reluctance to drop the gloves by his frustrated foes, but if stats be the judge, they say that Robitaille accepted many more invitations than he denied.

“I had so many fights during my time there, whether I was getting jumped or going after a guy,” said Robitaille, who was officially credited with 938 PIM’s and 83 fights in his three years in Hershey. “To judge if it’s a really good fight you not only have to think whether you did well, but you also have to look at it to see if it was at the right time.”

He continued, “I think one of my best fights was against Brennan Evens (Binghamton) in my first year in Hershey. That was a toe-to-toe battle at Giant Center. I also had a really good one against Eric Meloche in the 2006 playoffs (game four) against Norfolk that I thought changed the momentum of that game in our favor.”

Perhaps the biggest occupational hazard of any hockey players, particularly those who play with the reckless abandon that Robitaille played with is the risk of injury--particularly head injuries. Over the course of this past summer, the hockey world suffered a number of deaths to players that were at least in some way attributed to concussions and other symptoms related to head blows. That is a subject with which Robitaille is very familiar, and he has a seemingly plausible explanation of the spike in head injuries over the last few years in hockey.

“I’d say that I had about three or four of them that the doctors told me that I had to stop playing for a bit, and I probably had a couple more than that but I never said anything and I kept playing,” confessed Robitaille. “It’s like a little headache here and there, but you keep going because every hockey player suffers mild concussions here and there. You have the mentality that you don’t want to sit a game.”

“Back in the days when I first came into the AHL, you were still allowed to clutch and grab a little bit. But after they changed the rules, my style of game was when I had the puck between the blue and the red lines that I was going to softly chip the puck in and go in on the defenseman on the forecheck because they were not allowed to hold you up. The guys are in such good shape now and going 100 miles an hour and the defenseman in particular have no time to react and because of that, their heads are very exposed. So I think the new rules have a lot to do with the many head injuries.”

Last season at Giant Center, in what turned out to be his next to last appearance as a player in that venue, Robitaille was at the center of controversy when he collided with Hershey netminder Dany Sabourin behind the net. The hit earned him a game misconduct and a major penalty for charging Sabourin, and it essentially ended Sabourin’s season. Even now, however, as he did on that night, Robitaille maintains his innocence in the incident.

“It was definitely not intentional,” he said. “It was my first shift of the game and I was coming straight off the bench on the forecheck. My emotion was running high and I was excited to play and my intent was to go hard on the d-man. (Brian) Fahey had the puck behind the net and I know Dany stopped the puck and I thought he was getting out of there quicker. I think he stayed there to slow me down on the forecheck and I never stopped.”

“It was just a bad accident,” explained Robitaille. “If I had wanted to intentionally hit him, I would have hit him right in the number. If you look at the video, I caught his right leg and it was because I was trying to move out of the way because I realized I was kind of close. It’s one of those moments where you go out on the forecheck and you don’t realize what’s going on.”

Robitaille rates the 2005-06 Calder Cup winning season as the best of his career. In that campaign, he received his first and only NHL call-up, scored a career high of seven goals, and along with Joey Tenute and the combination of Eric Fehr and Jakub Klepis, played on a ferocious fourth line that would have been a first line combination in many clubs. In fact, Robitaille collected the sole assist on Tenute’s goal two minutes into the Cup-clinching game in Milwaukee, a game in which the Bears never looked back after that great start and cruised to a 5-1 victory.

There is no doubt that fans throughout the AHL all have lasting memories, whether they are positive or negative, of Robitaille who always seemed to be in the spotlight. But how does he want to be remembered by the fans?

“Oh, they’re gonna remember me as one of the premier pests in the AHL,” Robitaille chuckled. But really I want to be remembered as a guy who never backed down from anybody and as a guy who was always there for my teammates. I did take some bad penalties sometimes, but I was always a guy that had our team in mind first and I always worked hard for them. If it was something that would give a spark to my team, I would do it. Lastly, I was someone who always worked hard when I was on the ice. I was not the most talented guy on the ice, but to play eight years in the AHL and to play in the NHL and win the Calder Cup was to live my dream.”

At the conclusion of my conversation with the former number 24, Robitaille made a specific request that I include this message to the Hershey fans:

“Make sure you tell them that I’ll be at some games at Giant Center this year, and that I want to say thank you to all of the fans for their great support. They were always extremely nice to me and my family.”

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