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Here's to you, Mr. Robinson

Friday, 11.23.2007 / 9:24 AM / Ice Age

By Phil Coffey - NHL.com Sr. Editorial Director

Former Montreal Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson wipes a tear away as he stands with his family during pre-game ceremonies to retire his No. 19 in Montreal on Monday, Nov. 19, 2007.
In listening to the comments about Larry Robinson prior to Monday night’s ceremony at the Bell Centre, in which his No. 19 was retired by the Montreal Canadiens, one might think Robinson was being honored solely for being a great man. The fact he was one of the great defensemen in NHL history – six Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy – was a bonus.

Finding anyone with a cross word to say about Robinson is a near impossibility. I’m sure there is a curmudgeon someplace with an ax to grind, but we won’t be giving the lunatic fringe a forum on this subject.

On the ice, Larry Robinson was about as good as it gets as a defenseman. He was big, strong, rangy and could do it all. And he did, realizing his potential on one of the greatest teams of all time in Montreal, along with the likes of Ken Dryden, Jacques Lemaire and Steve Shutt, along with Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, the two other members of the Habs’ vaunted “Big Three” on defense.

The Internet generation probably doesn’t have too many memories of this team, and that’s a shame. This was one of the all-time teams, one whose sublime talents were a joy to watch. And chief among this group was Robinson, who could play a strong, elegant game, or mix it up with abandon if the going got rough.

The Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” had won the Stanley Cup in 1973-74 and 1974-75 playing a distinctly inelegant brand of hockey. Then along came Robinson’s Canadiens and things changed. I remember the cover of a Sports Illustrated back in May 1976 that showed a curly-haired Robinson giving the business to my friend Mel Bridgman. The message being, there was a new sheriff in town. The Canadiens went on to win four straight Cups before the New York Islanders checked in with their dynasty.

So Monday night’s ceremony was long overdue for Robinson, whose teammates – Dryden, Savard, Guy Lafleur and Yvan Cournoyer – already had their numbers retired by Montreal.

In this case, “better late than never” certainly applies.

“We had heard about him from (backup goaltender) Michel Plasse,” Savard told reporters of Robinson. “The Flyers were dictating the way we played in those days and Plasse, he said, ‘Wait till you see this big guy Robinson. He doesn’t go looking for a fight, but he’ll surprise you. He’ll surprise any of those tough guys who challenge him.’”

“Michel was right,” Savard continued. “Larry never looked for trouble. He was Mr. Gentleman from the moment he joined us, but if you challenged him ... When Larry arrived, he gave our team a whole new dimension. He was big, he was strong, he could skate, he could score goals and he could fight.”

”When he arrived, I became more of a defensive defenseman. Offensively, with Larry around, I was able to pick my spots,” Savard said. “You could say Larry was a dream player. He made it easy to play with him.”

“I am certain everyone here has different memories of No. 19, ‘Big Bird’ as he was known while helping the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup,” said New Jersey Devils President and GM Lou Lamoriello, who introduced Robinson Monday night. “Tonight marks another moment in Larry’s brilliant career. He was one-of-a-kind on the ice and one-of-a-kind off the ice, and I continue to cherish the opportunity to work with him every day.”

Hats off to the Senators -- The Ottawa Senators may have ruined the Canadiens’ party a bit Monday by winning the game, but a round of applause to the Senators for joining in the ceremonies honoring Larry Robinson. Too often in sports, the opposition sits out something like this, but the Senators and their coaches were present and all got to shake hands with an appreciative Robinson.

“There are two ways to do it,” Jason Spezza told the Ottawa Citizen. “We can stay away and tuck ourselves in the dressing room because we’re not expected to be out there, or we can embrace it.

“Last year, we were here when Ken Dryden’s number was retired. This year, it’s Larry Robinson. I don’t know how many numbers they have retired, but I’m guessing it’s not too many. So we’ve been part of a couple of big days and it’s special for us, too.”

Locking up the core -- Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke wasn’t happy that Dustin Penner was signed away as a restricted free agent by the Edmonton Oilers over the summer. He made sure it wasn’t going to happen again with Ryan Getzlaf.

So Getzlaf will be around for the next five seasons thanks to a contract extent he signed worth over $26 million.

"It is a real threat for any quality player in this age group," Burke said Tuesday on a conference call. "It's changed the rules. It used to be you could wait until the end of the year and not worry about affecting your player's play. Now you got to try and see if there's a common ground and lock these guys up."

Getzlaf could have become a restricted free agent this summer.

"I'm thrilled," Getzlaf said. "This is a place that I want to play. I love being here. I was given the opportunity to negotiate a contract this early and the team showed that they wanted me here as much as I wanted to be here. It was nice to get that out of the way this early."

At 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds, and with a Stanley Cup championship already under his belt, Getzlaf is a prototypical power forward. He is averaging better than a point per game this season and had 25 goals last season and seven goals and 10 assists in 21 playoff games.

"The sky's the limit with Ryan Getzlaf, because of the unique package," Burke said. "To be that skilled and still be that big and have that kind of top-end speed and power ... He really, I think, can do what he wants in this League. And I say that with praise."

"This is an organization that's been first-class ever since I got here, as well as the city," Getzlaf said. "I've had a great time and look forward to many years playing in Anaheim. It's great to be able to still be part of this core group."

How ‘bout those Islanders -- The New York Islanders took a beating in the pre-season prognostications this season. No one seemed terribly eager to give the Islanders a chance to prove that a big roster overhaul would work.

Guess what? Through the first quarter of the season, it’s working. The Islanders not only are in the thick of things in the Atlantic Division, they are ahead of Pittsburgh and New Jersey and right on the heels of the Rangers and Flyers.

"Just because the so-called experts pencil you in to have an unsuccessful season doesn't mean that you can't compete every night and play as hard as you can," Islanders center Mike Comrie told The Canadian Press.

New York Islanders' GM Garth Snow and newcomer Mike Comrie share the same sentiment on the team's early success.

"It's still early in the season," Isles GM Garth Snow said. "We haven't even got to the 20-game mark yet. But the encouraging part of that is that we feel we should have a better record than what we have."

To be fair, it was hard to envision this kind of start over the summer when Ryan Smyth left for Colorado, Alexei Yashin was bought out and Jason Blake, Viktor Kozlov and Tom Poti left as free agents.

But newcomers like Comrie, captain Bill Guerin and Josef Vasicek have been more than suitable replacements.

"We got the players that we thought would give us the best opportunity to win," Snow said. "I know some people outside this organization were skeptical and maybe didn't know what was going on, but we had a plan and we stuck to it."

Our time will come -- Through 19 games, the Boston Bruins are 10-7-2, not bad for a team predicted by many to be among the League’s bottom feeders this season. But it’s tough to get noticed in Boston these days because the city’s sports teams all are enjoying seasons for the ages.

The Red Sox won the World Series. The Patriots are running up the score on everyone in the NFL and the Celtics are off to a great start, too. Plus, Boston College is a strong college football team.

“I’ve heard this question since the summer, when the Celtics made their power trade (for Kevin Garnett),” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told the Toronto Sun. “Boston College has been near the top of the football rankings, too. It’s a pride thing to want to keep up to all of them, but it’s difficult when comparing us right now to a world champion ball team.

“We joked at today’s meeting for next year’s schedule that we’ll stay away from a home game on Bowl Day next January because BC and Northeastern will probably be in it.”

Budding Bobby Orrs -- In Chicago, we’ve seen Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews excel as rookie forwards. So far, it would be a mistake to overlook the Blackhawks’ defense, which scored 14 goals in the first 20 games this season.

“We’re joining the attack at the right time and we’re doing a good job getting up on the play,” coach Denis Savard told the Chicago Tribune. “You can’t have a two-man attack, a one-man attack or a three-man attack. You have to have a five-man attack. That’s what we’ve been preaching since training camp and it’s paying off right now.”

Insider trading -- Henrik Lundqvist is no dummy. When the New York Rangers’ goalie was going to face the Flyers’ Danny Briere in a shootout last week, he called over Briere’s former Buffalo Sabres teammate, Chris Drury, for a little scouting report.

“I got an inside tip from Drury that (Briere) likes to go in really close,” Lundqvist said. “I took a chance on a poke check.”

It worked, as the Rangers won in the shootout.

This ring’s got bling -- Boyd Devereaux owns a Stanley Cup ring thanks to a 21-game stint with the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.

Now with the Maple Leafs, Devereaux plays it low-key when it comes to dispensing advice.

“Guys will ask me what winning it was like and you just try and add the experience to what we’re trying to do here. Everyone was on the same page with that team that year and it was a confidence you could feel on and off the ice.”

Devereaux also doesn’t flash the Stanley Cup ring around either, but for more practical reasons.

“Mostly because it’s a beast to wear,” Devereaux told the Toronto Sun. “There’s bling, but that’s bling-bling. I get it out and look at it now and then, but only wear it on really special occasions.”
 

Material from personal interviews, wire services, newspaper, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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