Sullivan: Mike Robitaille comes home to the Buffalo Sports Hall

Sports

Former Buffalo Sabres player Mike Robitaille speaks during a news conference before an NHL hockey game against the Ottawa Senators in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, March 13, 2011. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

Late in 1977, Mike Robitaille was at a low point. His hockey career was over, the result of a serious spinal cord injury suffered on a blind-side hit by the Penguins’ Dennis Owchar. He was suing the Vancouver Canucks for mistreating his injuries. There were whispers that he was some kind of mental case.

He was 28 years old. 

“We were just waiting and trying to figure out where to go, what to do,” Robitaille said Monday. “I wasn’t too welcome in Vancouver.”

One day, his wife Isabel went to get the mail and called to her husband from the other room. “Come here, there’s a letter from Seymour!” she yelled. 

Sabres owner Seymour Knox III had sent Robitaille a personal letter on team stationery. He told Mike how upset he was about the way his situation was handled in Vancouver. 

“He wanted us to know they were behind me 100 percent and he said, ‘I think it’s time to come home.’ How great was that? I think it’s time to come home. Come home to Buffalo.

“He said, ‘There will always be something here for you.’ I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. I’ve got an eighth-grade education. What was I doing? Where do I go? I’ve got a disability, lost all our money.”

Robitaille still gets emotional thinking about that letter. He has it in his Williamsville home. He was hurting, physically and emotionally. The lawsuit had drained his bank account. His career was over. But back in Buffalo, he was still wanted.

So, he and Isabel moved back East. They eventually settled in Williamsville, where his wife took $5,000 from her credit card and started a successful real estate company. In 1981, the Supreme Court in British Columbia awarded him $355,000 in damages and said the Canucks had a duty to care for their players.

“It’s the most important thing in my life,” Robitaille said Monday at the Original Pancake House on Main Street in Williamsville. “Duty of care — from owners to players. It went unnoticed and was never an issue before then. If you go back and see the trend line, there’s such a difference today.”

Robitaille showed a lot of courage, taking on the NHL in the old days. He felt a duty to the players, to hockey. Before long, he was speaking out about the game for a living, as a popular and often blunt commentator on Sabres radio and television broadcasts for more than a quarter century until his retirement in 2014.

He made a permanent home here and became an icon in local hockey. And on Wednesday evening, the 73-year-old “Roby” will be one of 12 inductees in the 2021 class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in the annual dinner (the first in two years due to Covid) at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

Mike Robitaille’s GBSHOF plaque.

Robitaille, who was once voted the top defenseman in Canadian junior hockey, played eight years for four teams in the NHL (Rangers, Red Wings, Sabres and Canucks). He had developed into a very solid defenseman by the end of his career, despite a variety of injuries and multiple concussions. 

He got the most of his ability, and he did the same as an announcer. Robitaille was always uneasy about public speaking, odd for a man who did it so well. In fact, he was nervous about introducing the 2021 Hall class at a press conference over the summer. But he nailed it. 

Robitaille said he was in awe of the other inductees. Always a champion of the little guy, he’s most pleased for the amateur athletes, who can be overshadowed in a pro sports town. He had special praise for the 1958 UB football team that refused a bid to the Tangerine Bowl because two Black players weren’t allowed. 

He’ll be limited to five minutes in his induction speech. Ron Bertovich stopped by the restaurant on Wednesday to remind him. Bertovich, who was general manager of the Empire Sports Network and later a Sabres VP during Robitaille’s broadcast heyday, will be his official host for Wednesday’s festivities. 

“I hold his hand the whole time,” Bertovich joked. “I make sure he only speaks five minutes. You’ve heard me three times say that. I don’t want you going 15 minutes.”

“No, I won’t,” Robitaille said, without conviction. 

Bertovich said he got a copy of Roby’s first NHL contract, with the Rangers, to use as for the visual presentation. “I had it laminated,” Bertovich said. “He had a $300 bonus if he finished with a positive plus-minus, $300 if they made the playoffs, $300 if they made the second round and so on.”

Robitaille does wonder how he’ll manage to say it all in five minutes. So many people who influenced him along the way, on the ice and in the booth and in the community. He had two special mentors in Buffalo, both of whom died young and wound up in the Hockey Hall of Fame: Legendary defenseman Tim Horton and sports writer Jim Kelley, who won the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award. 

Horton played the last two years of his career with the Sabres from 1972-74, when he died in a car crash at 44. Robitaille was his young protégé those two seasons in Buffalo, soaking up knowledge like a sponge.

“I didn’t have much ability,” Robitaille said. “But I had a nice run for three years after I got to learn how to play with Horton. The science of hockey. He never said a word to us. Not a single word. Just call you over to one said and show you. Nothing verbal, just watch and learn. Watch and learn. 

“How to stand up on the blue line. How to put guys on angles. How to lay your stick down flat on the ice for cross-ice passes. When to light your hair on fire in the corners and in front of the nets, and when to back off and save yourself, save your energy. All this stuff culminated into being a much better player.”

Robitaille will never forget the night Horton died. He said Horton had taken a hit on the jaw and seemed lethargic after a game in Toronto on Feb. 21, 1974. Horton asked Roby if he wanted to ride back with him. Robitaille declined. Horton, known for driving very fast, died in a one-car crash on the QEW.

Honesty and humility were two qualities that made Robitaille a good, if at times controversial, announcer. He and Kelley spent a lot of time on the road in the early days, when the hockey travel was a bit more difficult.

“We’d be up at 5 in the morning, freezing and waiting for the bus,” Robitaille told me after Kelley died of cancer in 2010. “Or looking for a sandwich at 2 in the morning. We did a lot of talking over those 15 years. He absolutely hated being on those road trips away from his wife and kids. We talked about our kids. We’d compare the things our wives had to go through.”

Robitaille was at his peak alongside Brian Blessing on “Hockey Hotline,” the Empire postgame show from the mid-’90s to early 2000s.  He and Kelley were a radio team on “The Sharpshooters.” They were must-listen and didn’t pull any punches.

Brian Blessing and Mike Robitaille on “Hockey Hotline” (Courtesy of Ron Bertovich)

Kelley told Roby to be honest and fair, and most of all, never sell out. In other words, don’t be a homer. Listeners don’t expect you to talk like a fan.

“Yeah, just be honest,” Robitaille said. “Try to be as balanced as you can and do your homework before you say something negative. Make sure you’re right. Don’t give them any openings, because they’ll dump all over you.”

Robitaille got under the skin of some players for his blunt assessments. Doug Gilmour, who flopped during his brief time in Buffalo, once called Robitaille and Blessing disgusting and wished he could have punched them in the mouth. 

It was honesty that made him a respected announcer. Roby revered Kelley. He was popular with writers and columnists, because he thought the way they did. He felt it was his job to be a critic, not a cheerleader.

“Totally, and that came at a price,” he said. 

He took a lot of unkind hits from critics over the years, sometimes from management. The Knoxes fired him in the early 1990s and he resurfaced with Empire soon after. He felt undermined at times. But the worst blow of all came in February of 2010, when Robitaille suffered a spinal cord injury after his car was rear-ended during a chain reaction. He underwent surgery a week later. 

After all the concussions (he was part of a concussion lawsuit filed by 104 former NHL players, which was dismissed in court) and the brain stem injury as a player, it seemed incredibly unfair for fate to come at him this way.

“As soon as that car hit me, I know what was wrong,” he said. “The same feeling I had when I got it my last game. A shocking sensation through here (he drew an imaginary line across his chest). My mouth, my tongue, slobbering. I couldn’t get the one hand up. I wanted to scratch my nose and couldn’t.

“Dr. Gibbons took a look at it. He says, ‘I don’t know if I can make this all go away, but I can protect you from this ever happening again.’ They put rods and screws in there and also my lower back, they put rods and screws in there, so I’m protected now. Because next time, I’m in a wheelchair.”

He walks very slowly now, like a man held together by rods and screws. Robitaille is in constant pain. He takes hydrocodone for the pain. He has regular injections. But he has his passion for horse racing and owns a couple of horses. He and Isabel, who have two successful daughters, own a place in Mexico near a golf course. He loves golf but can’t play any longer. 

Roby counts his blessings, and he was beaming on Monday. He had asked Kelley’s widow, Susan, to be a guest at his table for the Hall of Fame inductions. She gladly accepted, along with grandson Branden.

“It makes the whole thing for me,” he said. “Isabel told me, ‘Well, we really did something nice today.’ I said, ‘What did we do now?’ She said Susan accepted and will be sitting at our family table.

“She was so thrilled. People remember Jimmy. Sue said, ‘I’ll be there with bells on.’”

Naturally, Roby is a little nervous about the speech. Should he use index cards? Will he leave anybody out? Who should he thank? Five minutes? Bertovich will be happy if Robitaille can hold it to 10. 

Speaking in public never came easy. But once Robitaille gets in front of that microphone and starts talking, he’ll find his rhythm, folksy and honest, right from the heart. He’ll look out at all those familiar faces and realize, once again that he’s home. This time, in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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