By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Mike Robitaille’s hockey connection to Buffalo extends back before the Sabres even played a game. He won a championship here, came to town in one of the best deals ever made by the Sabres, and later became an extremely popular broadcaster.
It’s been quite a ride, and now Mike splits his time between this part of the world – he has horse racing interests in Canada – and Mexico. He talked about his hockey career during a visit to the KeyBank Center.
Buffalo Sports Page: You get to see some old friends at the KeyBank Center. What’s it like for you?
Mike Robitaille: The people that work here, especially the people I worked with – you develop a lot of close friends. They are people I miss and don’t get to see. To see them again, it makes me feel good, and they’re happy to see me. It’s a good marriage.
BSP: It’s been almost 50 years since your first association with Buffalo, because you were on the Buffalo Bisons team that won an American Hockey League championship in the spring of 1970.
Robitaille: (Points to finger) There’s the ring from that championship. I was one of the few guys to win two championships in one year. I was playing in Omaha (of the Central Hockey League) with the Rangers, and I set a scoring record for defensemen (with 58 points). They won the championship there. Then Emile Francis, who was the general manager for the Rangers, told me, “You’re going to Buffalo.” So I played in Buffalo for the Bisons. (The defenseman appeared in five playoff games, getting four assists.) And we won a championship. I was so appreciated in Buffalo. At the end of the season, I got a check for $3,200 for the two championships. I didn’t have to dig ditches that summer. I lived good.
BSP: That Buffalo championship must have been a great moment, because it was the last chapter of the city’s AHL history that dated back decades. But you must have enjoyed it on a personal level as well.
Robitaille: Ever since I was a kid, I had such respect for the old-timers and the people who played before us. They were all my heroes, and I got to play with some of them. Then when I came to the Sabres in 1972, it was the same way. I was playing with guys like Larry Hillman. I watched those guys as a kid in Ontario, and now I’m sitting down and talking to these guys on the bench and in the locker room. They even listened to me.
BSP: The Sabres traded goalie Joe Daley to Detroit for you and Don Luce, which worked out really well for the team.
Robitaille: When I was traded I was playing for Detroit, and I was told to call (general manager) Ned Harkness. When I did, they said Ned was in a meeting and he’d call when he was done. When I saw him five years later, I said, “Are you ever going to call?” They didn’t care about me. Then Punch Imlach called, he said, “Ever since you were playing junior in Kitchener, I’ve been chasing you down and I’ve finally got you. I’ve wanted you since you were a kid.” He asked about a player I knew as a kid, and then he said, “I don’t know if you’re going to like me, but you’ll find out pretty quick that I’m not a very nice guy when it comes to losing.” He asked if I needed anything, and I asked if I could have No. 3. I was superstitious. He said, “Superstitious? I’ll tell you about being superstitious.” Now he’s starting to like me a little bit.
I ended up getting Tracy Pratt’s number, and I never gave a thought that it was Tracy’s favorite number. Here’s this kid who said to guy 27 or 28 years old, “Give me his number.” I came in and thought, “You idiot. You never showed him any respect.” I played two and a half years with him in almost every game. Then he was my defense partner in Vancouver for a couple of years.
BSP: Your Sabre team in 1972-73 took a huge step forward to make the playoffs. It really solidified the relationship between the Sabres and Western New York. That must have been a terrific experience. What was it like from the inside?
Robitaille: Move it forward 50 years later, and nothing has changed. They never forget you. They remember those days, they remember those games, they remember the fights, they remember the hits, they remember the hip checks – all that stuff. Their memories are solidified. In those years to pull it all together was amazing. Imlach had them in the finals in five years. Whether you liked the guy or not, and personally I didn’t, that’s pretty amazing. He was really smart. I overheard him talking to John Andersen one time and he said, “We’re not going to win many games right away, but in the meantime I’ve got to entertain these fans.” So he brought in guys like Eddie Shack and Reggie Fleming at the start – colorful guys. There were slick guys like Phil Goyette and Donny Marshall. You might lose games by 5-2, but they put a show on. The fans got their money’s worth. We grew with them.
BSP: You were traded right before the start of the 1974-75 season, when the Sabres reached the finals. Did you see that great season coming?
Robitaille: No. I didn’t think they were that good. I found out I was wrong when I played against them. It was a different world altogether.
BSP: After you went to Vancouver, you suffered a severe injury that more or less pushed you out of the league by 1977. When did you start thinking about working as a broadcaster?
Robitaille: I needed to eat. I ran out of money. I didn’t have that much. When I played here I was making $18,000. After I played in Vancouver, I fractured my neck. We went through a lawsuit, and it was the first time a player had sued the National Hockey League. I had to go through that myself. There was no help from Alan Eagleson, no help from my teammates. The team told them not to get involved with Robitaille – he’s bad news. My wife and I went through it. I had about four or five guys on my side. Jim Schoenfeld was one. He came out as a witness to say I didn’t fake injuries and that I played hard. We went through that and won the lawsuit. They appealed it to the Supreme Court, and they lost the appeal and the judgment was raised even higher.
But I had lost everything. I couldn’t walk right. I had to learn how to walk again. I came back to Buffalo with my tail between my legs. This was where I wanted to be, this was where my friends were, this is where I cared about. I played three and a half years in Vancouver and never met a player I liked. When I came back to Buffalo, I was comfortable. But I had lost all my money, and I couldn’t work from the neck injury. The lawsuit gave us some breathing room, but I had to work.
Ted Darling came over one day and wanted to schedule an interview with me for between periods. I knew they were looking for someone to work on the broadcasts, and I said, “I’d better not screw this up. I have to do the best interview he’s ever heard in his life.” And I just knocked his socks off. It was a really good interview. It wasn’t the usual back against the wall stuff. He told Paul Wieland, “Listen to this. He might have an ability to do this.” Something opened up, and so I did because it was the only thing I could do. I don’t have much of an education. I wasn’t going to do something in the world of science, and I didn’t care to stock shelves at a grocery store for the rest of my life. I made damn sure I didn’t screw it up. I started on TV, and studying and studying to be as good as I could be. I added a little color and a little humor, and before I knew it I had a full-time job. I just ran with it. The team had four owners in one stretch, and I kept working. I ought to get a brass hat for that.
BSP: Were you startled about how popular you got as a broadcaster? I’m sure people came up to you and repeated your pet phrases, or said “How you doin’?” in restaurants all over town?
Robitaille: I’ll be sitting there and people will say, “Hey, colder than a well digger’s lunch.” They remembered them all, and if the kids didn’t remember them, the parents did – or the grandfathers. I hear, “My dad said you could really throw a good hip check.” Funny you brought the phrases up. I still get things in the mail. I don’t know how people get my address. I spent time in Prague for five, six weeks last year. They had my hockey card over there. They showed up and asked for autographs.
You know what I miss most? Once you leave the game as a player or broadcaster, you don’t have the impact you used to have. I guess it’s credibility, and you lose that. The older people still think of you that way, but the young people don’t.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)