Video: Larry Robinson vital cog on six Cup-winning teams
"On your first shift, you need to hammer somebody," MacNeil told him.
The date was Jan. 8, 1973. The Canadiens were playing the Minnesota North Stars at the Montreal Forum. When Larry Robinson, 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, hit the ice, MacNeil's words were foremost in his mind.
"Poor Bobby Nevin was the first guy I saw and I flattened him into the boards," Robinson said.
Games: 1,384 | Goals: 208 | Assists: 750 | Points: 958
A 34-year-old right wing, Nevin was in the late stages of an 18-year, 307-goal NHL career. He became the first of many NHL players to absorb a heavy hit from Robinson, who would soon be known League-wide for his punishing checks, mutton-chop sideburns and being one of the best defensemen to play the game -- a vital cog in a Canadiens dynasty that won the Stanley Cup six times, including four straight championships from 1976-79.
Surrounded by the likes of Serge Savard, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey and Steve Shutt, Robinson was as powerful a presence as there was in the League, a man whose hallmark was smart, rugged, unyielding defense, and who was a potent offensive force, too. Never was that more apparent than in Game 5 of the 1978 Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins, the series tied.
Just under eight minutes into a scoreless first period, the Canadiens were on a power play when Savard backhanded the puck to Robinson behind the Montreal goal. Robinson started up ice, picking up speed as he approached the blue line. He kept coming, charging hard down the right side, challenging the Bruins defense. He deked Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury by the Bruins blue line, veered right and then swept left, switching from backhand to forehand as he went. Milbury desperately tried to get back into the play, but Robinson held him off and powered in front, flicking the puck over the left shoulder of Gerry Cheevers, the Bruins goaltender.
The fans in the Forum erupted. Robinson's teammates mobbed him. The Canadiens were on their way to a 4-1 victory, and closed the series out one game later. It was as spectacular an individual effort as you will ever see.
Nobody was surprised when Robinson, who had six points in the Final and 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) to tie Lafleur for the playoff lead, was named the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
"He's taken quite a few games I've seen and broken them open with an end-to-end rush," Milbury said. "As far as I'm concerned, Larry's far and away the Canadiens MVP."
Perhaps no teammate had a deeper appreciation for Robinson than the goaltender he protected at all costs, Dryden. In his classic book, "The Game," Dryden wrote this of the defenseman everybody called "Big Bird": "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."
Born and raised on a dairy farm in Marvelville, Ontario, Robinson was not the most heralded of players coming out of junior hockey, a converted forward playing defense for the Kitchener Rangers. He was the fourth player selected by the Canadiens in the 1971 NHL Draft, 19 spots after the No. 1 pick, Lafleur. Robinson actually didn't like the Canadiens as a kid, mostly because they always seemed to win. He scanned a roster stocked with such top-line defenseman as Savard, Lapointe, Pierre Bouchard and Jacques Laperriere and thought, "Holy mackerel, I'm never going to make it with them."
He went to his first camp and admitted he was clueless about what was going on around him. He just figured he'd play his game, with full intensity and running everybody who came near him.
"I didn't know that the veterans look out for each other, so [forward] Claude Larose and I had a little tiff right off the bat because I had hit one of the guys on the team," Robinson said.
Robinson didn't have to wait long to force his way into the defensive rotation, ultimately being paired with Savard, who, like Dryden, watched in awe as Robinson's bruising brilliance took hold, particularly in Game 2 of the 1976 Stanley Cup Final, when Robinson drilled Philadelphia Flyers forward Gary Dornhoefer with what longtime hockey broadcaster Bob Miller called "the hardest check I have ever seen."
The impact was so severe the sideboards came loose and had to be reattached.
"Dorny and I had hammered each other at will," Robinson wrote in his book, "Robinson On Defence." "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."
After the game, Dornhoefer had a stock reply to every reporter who asked about the check.
"Robinson hits like a pussycat," he said.
Savard, who went from being Robinson's partner to his GM late in his career, said Robinson gave the Canadiens "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.
"You could say Larry was a dream player ... He was good for the team in every way. He made it easy to play with him."
For his part, Robinson said it was Savard who made it easy for him, covering up for his mistakes, a defensive rock whose steadiness freed Robinson to push the attack.
"He was a tremendous help to me," Robinson said. "... He told me just to go and he'd stay back. That's how it went for all those years we won the Cup."
Robinson had a 17-year run with the Canadiens, winning the Norris Trophy twice as the League's top defenseman, along with the six Stanley Cup championships. He finished his career with the Los Angeles Kings, a move he later regretted. Robinson had 19 goals and 85 points in his best season, 1976-77, when he was also a ludicrous plus-120. For his career, Robinson had 208 goals and 750 assists, but was most proud of his plus-730 rating. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, nearly a quarter-century after he got the call-up to the Canadiens and got the sage advice from his coach in Nova Scotia, Al MacNeil.
"If you're ever going to play in a place that's going to help your career, it's Montreal," Robinson said. "They didn't settle for second best. It's either going to make you or break you. It broke quite a few but it also made a lot of great hockey players over the years, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. The people there treated me just unbelievably. There's no other place I would rather have played."
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