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Inside The NHL

King Luc Robitaille's play has been revived by a new workout

Picture a campground in the Rocky Mountains on a sunny morning
last July. From a mobile home emerges an immaculately coiffed man
lugging an unwieldy piece of equipment. Other campers, watching
curiously, figure it's an outsized jack for the trailer, but it's
not. Working with a wrench, the man assembles a squat rack, which
he loads with steel weights. Eventually another camper ambles
over. "Uh, mister?" he says. "What the hell are you doin'?"

The guy with the hair was none other than Kings left wing Luc
Robitaille, who was in the middle of a monthlong camping sojourn
with his family, and what he was doing was resurrecting his
once-prolific career. Robitaille had averaged 49 goals in his
first eight seasons in the NHL, but over the last three he'd
averaged 21. This year Robitaille is back in his old form--through
Sunday he was tied for second in the league in goals, with 24--and
was a glaring omission from the rosters selected for Sunday's
All-Star Game in Tampa.

"I have more strength and stamina than I've ever had," says the
6'1", 205-pound Robitaille. "Players have gotten bigger and
bigger, and I had to make myself stronger." After last season,
during which he underwent abdominal surgery and had just 16 goals
in 57 games, Robitaille began a workout regimen designed to
strengthen his lower torso and legs. He stuck diligently to his
routine even as he, wife Stacia, and their two kids wended their
way from Big Sur to Yellowstone National Park. By training camp
he had put on 15 pounds of muscle.

Robitaille, 32, has been thriving with the added bulk. Says Kings
defenseman Rob Blake, "There's no getting him off the puck." He
was softer in his first tenure with the Kings (1986-87 through
1993-94), during which the affable Robitaille became one of Los
Angeles's most beloved athletes. But after falling out of favor
with then Kings captain Wayne Gretzky, he was dealt to the
Penguins. One season later he was traded to the Rangers, for whom
he had two disappointing years. When the Kings reacquired him for
faded power forward Kevin Stevens last season, skeptics said the
move was motivated more by Robitaille's popularity than by his
scoring ability--a perception that held firm when he struggled
last year.

Now Robitaille is L.A.'s best offensive player, and he put a
stamp on his resurgence earlier this month when he scored his
500th career goal. The achievement prompted his teammates to buy
him a mammoth home-entertainment system. "My family loves it,"
says Robitaille. "They deserve a reward after putting up with me
this summer. You don't see a guy doing squats and dead lifts in a
campground every day, you know. My wife was a little embarrassed.
She hid in the trailer."

Two-Referee System

The thugs in the NHL who slam opponents when they think a referee
isn't looking are getting away with that less frequently this
season. As the league experiments with a two-referee system, a
new justice has prevailed. "It has done a lot to clean up the
game," says Sabres general manager Darcy Regier. That's because,
as Predators general manager David Poile says, "two policemen in
a community are better than one."

Through Sunday two refs had been used in 178 of 570 games, and
with good results. Because would-be aggressors were increasingly
wary of being caught by a second set of eyes, penalty minutes
were lower in two-referee games than in single-ref matches (34.2
to 34.6). That has helped improve the flow of play while
shortening games (2:34 to 2:36). The system bodes well for the
long term, too, because it could prolong the careers of the
league's most experienced officials by lessening the physical
demands on them. "The first thing that goes on a ref is his
wheels," says Canucks general manager Brian Burke. "This will
allow guys to stay on an extra five or 10 years."

Before the end of next month, the NHL is likely to announce that
it will use two refs during some of its playoff games. That would
be a wise move, provided the league makes two adjustments. First,
it should pair off the referees and keep them together throughout
the postseason, so they can become familiar with one another and
develop a complementary style. Second, the NHL should not
continue its half-baked policy of employing two refs in some
games but not in others. "One night you're getting away with
something, and the next night you're not," says Maple Leafs
forward Kris King.

The NHL traditionally has had a backup referee at every playoff
game, so there's ample manpower to assign two referees to each
postseason game. The added expense (on-ice refs earn
$8,000-$12,000 per round, while backups get half that amount)
would be a smart investment for the league. The two-referee
system helps deter hockey's worst sin, gratuitous violence, and
you can't put a price on that.

Pavel Bure Trade

As the NHL's chief disciplinarian from 1993 to '98, Brian Burke
developed a high tolerance for criticism. He needs it now. Burke,
the Canucks' first-year general manager, traded holdout winger
Pavel Bure to the Panthers on Sunday in a deal that no doubt had
Florida general manager Bryan Murray dancing a jig.

In addition to Bure, 27, who has scored more than 50 goals three
times and is one of the NHL's top five offensive talents,
Vancouver surrendered smooth-skating defenseman Bret Hedican,
blue-line prospect Brad Ference and a third-round pick. The
Panthers gave up defenseman Ed Jovanovski, 22, a potential
All-Star who has progressed unevenly; center Dave Gagner, 34,
who's in decline; holdout goalie Kevin Weekes, 23, who has no
wins in 11 career NHL games; forward prospect Mike Brown; and a
first-round pick.

Earlier in Bure's holdout, Burke had made exorbitant demands of
teams interested in Bure. There were no takers, so Burke settled
for Florida's middling package. In the end the Panthers walked
off with the prize and left Burke bracing for the critics.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK After three subpar seasons Robitaille has regained his place among the NHL's elite goal scorers. [Luc Robitaille in game]

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: BOB ROSATO (2) [Ron Francis; Keith Primeau]


1998-99 salary: $5 million
After averaging 1.15 points per game in the first 17 seasons of
his NHL career, the 35-year-old Francis had just eight goals and
11 assists in 43 matches this season, through Sunday.

1998-99 salary: $2 million
Having averaged .66 of a point per game during his first eight
seasons, the 27-year-old Primeau was carrying Carolina with 21
goals and 15 assists in 43 matches at week's end.