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Larry Robinson: 'Big Bird' was the complete package

Tuesday, 01.20.2009 / 12:16 PM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By Red Fisher - Special to NHL.com

Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher is in his 54th season on the Canadiens beat. Let's agree he is supremely qualified to name the 10 greatest Montreal Canadiens all-stars of all-time, which are all forwards and defensemen.Today's column considers No. 6 on Red's list, defensemen Larry Robinson.

Among the 24 Stanley Cups the Canadiens have won, none stands out as much as the one in 1970-71. It came after the season they missed the playoffs, which was a big disappointment. They had won in 1969, but on the second-to-last day of the season in the spring of 1970 they were in third place, yet lost out in a goal average on the last day.
 
But the team rebounded the next year, beating what was one of the great teams in the NHL.
 
"Nobody gave them much of a chance against Boston in the first round," General Manager Sam Pollock told me. "They had finished first, we had finished third. They had 121 points, we had 97. They had Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito at their best. They had won the Cup the year before and it seemed that nobody would be able to beat them."
 
Pollock said winning the Cup was sweet for a lot of reasons.
 
"It was Jean Beliveau's final year," he said. "John Ferguson retired. Ken Dryden came to the team very late that season. Pete Mahovlich established himself as an up-and-coming great player. We traded for Frank Mahovlich in January. There was a coaching change (Al MacNeil replaced Claude Ruel) during the season. Henri Richard got two big goals in that last game in Chicago."
 
Pollock didn't know it at the time, but the best was yet to come, starting with the Canadiens' No. 1 overall acquisition of Guy Lafleur in the 1971 draft, the first of three first-round choices. (Chuck Arnason had been selected No. 7 and Murray Wilson No. 11.)
 
Nobody had the slightest idea that Pollock's fourth choice, No. 20 overall, would develop into the second-best defenceman in Canadiens history. Larry Robinson had the size (6-foot-4, 225 pounds), but how was anyone to suspect the first of only two players drafted from Kitchener's junior team (Ted Scharf, taken No. 50 overall by Philadelphia, never made it to the NHL) would go on to score 208 goals and 750 assists in 1,384 games?
 
Who would have thought he would play a leadership role on six Stanley Cup teams in his 17 seasons with the Canadiens, win the Norris Trophy twice and the Conn Smythe in 1978, following the third of the team's four consecutive championship seasons?
 
Robinson was the complete package in every facet of the game. He was a physical presence, as unflinching as a tree while punishing people with his bodychecks. In his book, "Robinson on Defence," Robinson recalled his hit on Philadelphia's Gary Dornhoefer, a thunderous bodycheck fans with long memories recall even to this day. It happened in the third period of Game 2 of the 1973 playoffs:
 
"Dorny and I had hammered each other at will. It seems as if we had an unspoken agreement: whenever we met on the ice, it would be a collision. There was no animosity, just two pros acknowledging that the other had a job to do.
 
"We were leading 2-1 midway through the third when Dorny led a rush up Philadelphia's right side. I was playing left defence and I angled towards him, trying to get a hip into him. He was just inside our blue line when I got my hip into him. Bang into the boards he went, and down he went. When he got up, he was looking at the boards curiously ... we had broken the boards, as it turned out. There was this big dent near the top. Players on both teams skated by the area, sneaking looks and shaking their heads.
 
"After the game," Robinson wrote, "Gary took great pains to tell the reporters that 'Robinson hits like a pussycat.' "
 
Like most players in the Canadiens organization, you don't make the roster by divine right. For Robinson, there was an apprenticeship to serve in the minors with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs for one full season and the first half of a second. And, like so many others who finally were called up to play alongside the established stars, there was a waiting period before his anointment as a regular.
 
For example, even though he played regularly starting with his first game on Jan. 8, 1973 against the visiting Minnesota North Stars, Robinson wasn't used in the first round of the playoffs against Buffalo and played only one shift in the first game against Philadelphia in20a losing cause when Rick MacLeish scored in overtime.
 
 
Robinson didn't start logging substantial ice time until the third period of the second game (when Jacques Laperriere was injured). That's when the real "Big Bird" was born with his thunderous bodycheck on Dornhoefer, and wouldn't you know it: he tied the series with an overtime goal.
 
He was to earn his first Stanley Cup ring when the Canadiens handled Chicago in six games. His first Norris Trophy and third ring came four seasons later after an exceptional regular season that included 19 goals and 66 assists, as well as an astonishing league-leading plus-120.
 
Robinson was special for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that while he punished people with his body, he cared deeply for the players alongside him and always regarded the opposition with respect. "Team" was what he was all about. So was winning, which is why in recent years there was an increasing outcry for Robinson's jersey to join those of seven other Canadiens whose numbers have been retired.
 
It was a question I put to current Canadiens owner George Gillett during a team practice in Calgary. "I've talked to some of the players whose numbers have been retired," Gillett said. "They've told me the standards have gone down."
 
"You mean somebody like Robinson, who was voted to the all-time Canadiens team of the last half-century, doesn't deserve to have his number retired?" he was asked.
 
Gillett merely shrugged. The next day in Vancouver, Gillett did some backchecking. "I heard you loud and clear in Calgary yesterday," he said. "Loud and clear ..."  [Editor's note; Robinson's number 19 was retired and lifted in the rafters in November 2007]
 
"When Larry arrived, he gave our team a whole new dimension," says his longtime defense partner Serge Savard, later his GM. "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.
 

"You could say Larry was a dream player: he had the size, the shot, the skating, the ability - and he was easy to manage. He was good for the team in every way. He made it easy to play with him."
-- Serge Savard, longtime defense partner of Larry Robinson

"You could say Larry was a dream player: he had the size, the shot, the skating, the ability - and he was easy to manage," Savard added. "He was good for the team in every way. He made it easy to play with him."
 
The popular notion is the reason his number hadn't been retired is that he was an unhappy camper when he left the Canadiens for the Los Angeles Kings, where he played for three seasons. Not so, Savard insists. "I offered him a better deal than the Kings did," Savard said. "I offered him a two-year deal and I told him if he didn't want to play the second year, that was all right."
 
That is what Savard was saying about his longtime partner only recently. This is what Ken Dryden had to say about Robinson two decades ago in "The Game," the best hockey book ever written: "He was the rare player whose effect on a game was far greater than any statistical or concrete contribution he might make. When he came onto the ice, the attitude of the play seemed to change. Standing in back of him, I could feel it, I could see it change, growing more restrained, more respectful, as if it was waiting for him to see what he would do.
 
"Nowhere was this more clear, or more important, than against the Flyers or the Bruins. They held him in such awe, treating him with an embarrassing, almost fawning, respect, that they seemed even to abandon their style of play when he was around, and with it any hope of winning.
 
"Each time we played them, I knew that an outraged Fred Shero or Don Cherry would send out players to hunt him, to hammer him into the boards with elbows and sticks, to fight with him if he would let them until, bruised and sweating, his mystique could only come crashing down.
 
"But they never did," Dryden wrote.
 
Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran in early 2005. For more insights about the Canadiens, check out the Gazette's hockey blog, www.habsinsideout.com.