Unlike professional hockey players, Mike Robitaille cannot head to Russia during the NHL lockout to keep his skills sharp. The Kontinental Hockey League doesn’t have many openings for TV analysts these days.
That doesn’t mean that Robitaille, the longtime Buffalo Sabres analyst who appears on the pregame and postgame programs on the MSG Network, has been sitting in his living room playing Angry Birds.
“I’ve never been so busy in my life,” Robitaille said by phone last week. “There are plenty of charities to get involved with, I have an association with Roswell [Park Cancer Institute], I also represent Seneca Gaming. … And we have a real estate company here in Williamsville, which takes up a lot of my free time. … I’ve been very fortunate that I don’t just sit around all day and drive my wife crazy.”
That would be Isabel Robitaille, CEO of Robitaille Relocation and Real Estate in Williamsville, where Mike Robitaille plays a supporting role.
Hockey, of course, is the second love of Robitaille’s life. The 64-year-old former NHL defenseman who grew up in Midland, Ont., says he understands the reasons for the labor stoppage, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
“I understand why they’re doing it, why it needs to be done, and why they are at loggerheads,” Robitaille said. “I understand where the players are coming from and I understand where the owners are coming from. You could make a good argument for both of them.”
Robitaille has been making regular appearances on WGR Radio, as well as doing out-of-town interviews with radio stations and hockey publications in Canada and elsewhere, to discuss the lockout. But none of that replaces going to First Niagara Center to broadcast a game.
“This whole episode, I take it personally. I have a vested interest – hockey [broadcasting] is how I make my living,” he said. “I’ve done it for 33 years. The game is in my blood and I miss it. I have a craving for it that’s not being filled right now.”
Robitaille said he knows that some fans threaten to never come back after any work stoppage in professional sports.
“But I sense they’ll all go back” to watch the NHL, he said, if a settlement is reached.
“I am not surprised it has lasted this long. The negotiations might take them into the new year, when football is over. Hockey really picks up after football is over.
“If they’re not back at that point, you’ll see the outrage. I’m out in the community and I don’t see the outrage yet.”
If a lockout settlement is reached, Robitaille doesn’t expect the fans in Buffalo to stay away too long, but there are other markets where the fan base for hockey is not as reliable.
“What bothers me more than anything else is the product of what the NHL has done in the seven years since the last lockout, the league and the players took this game of hockey to a height that no one has ever seen before,” he said.
“Parity in the NHL is second to none. The league has been begging, crying, scratching for any TV exposure, and my God, they have NBC now in a marriage with the league, so all it’s going to do is grow.
“Almost every detail is there to take the game to a level it’s never been before. It’s just needed that push, that momentum, and that doesn’t come easy. It took them years, decades to get this momentum,” he added, adding that momentum can be hard to recapture.
“You look at Los Angeles, which won the Cup last year, they had all that momentum. When I used to go into that building they had to give away tickets just to get people to come. Now, after winning the Cup, the franchise is ready to take off like it hasn’t since Gretzky was playing there.
“In Florida, they have been doing better; Phoenix, that building was filled last year. Now the momentum has come to a screeching halt. Think of all the merchandise they would be selling this time of year [if the season were being held].”
Robitaille says he does not worry much about the fate of the Sabres.
“In this town, this team has never been in a better position in terms of ownership. This guy [Terry Pegula] will give his right arm in terms of his players and his employees. There’s nothing but common sense in the way they run their hockey club.”
If labor peace is achieved, Robitaille says everyone in the Sabres organization will be ready to hit the ice running.
“They’ve done a lot of constructive things with their off time. They’ve been preparing, putting in full days. When this is settled, they will be ready to fire from Day One.”
When will Day One arrive?
“For those of us who are broadcasters and writers, we all kind of maybe think we know more than we really do [about the labor negotiations],” Robitaille said. “Behind those closed doors we don’t know that the hell is going on.
“At the end of the day, if you’re hurting enough, you will get it done. If my first-born was at stake tomorrow, there would be a deal done tonight. The question is, how much are they hurting?”