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Robinson stays humble amid Sharks' success

Hall of Fame defenseman, San Jose executive discusses franchise's first Final appearance, his playoff lore

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

His modesty notwithstanding, Larry Robinson casts an impressive, continent-wide shadow over the San Jose Sharks, having played a vital role in the fortunes of a team that will skate into its first Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday (8 p.m. ET: NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

Robinson has been a member of the Sharks organization for nearly four years. He was hired in July 2012 as associate coach and added the duties of director of player development in May 2014.

"And if you ever find out what that [latter title] means, let me know," Robinson joked from his Florida home this week.

The Hall of Fame defenseman, who will celebrate his 65th birthday on Tuesday, has been tight with Sharks general manager Doug Wilson since their preteen years in the Ottawa area. He and San Jose coach Peter DeBoer, both alumni of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers, go back to 2011-12, when DeBoer was hired as coach of the New Jersey Devils and Robinson served as one of his assistants.

In the days ahead, from his home in Bradenton, Fla., or perhaps much closer to the scene, Robinson will be thrilled to see the Sharks navigate the uncharted waters of the Final.

"I'll wait for them to call me," Robinson said hours before the Sharks eliminated the St. Louis Blues by winning Game 6 of the Western Conference Final on Wednesday. "If they ask me to go to San Jose, I would. But I'm kind of leaning against it. I don't want to be one of those guys jumping on the bandwagon. In all honesty, I haven't had a lot to do with the success they've had this year.

"The people who are there, who have been through it, should enjoy the moment of it. I'd love to be part of it and help them celebrate, but I certainly don't feel that it was anything that I did that got them to where they are."

All of this, of course, is in perfect keeping with his being a humble giant.

Robinson has never been one to brag, no matter that his name is engraved on the Stanley Cup nine times -- six as a player with the Montreal Canadiens, three more as a coach, assistant coach or consultant with the Devils.

He'll volunteer nothing about twice winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, or being awarded the 1978 Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, or playing in 10 All-Star Games, or being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, or, in 2007, having his No. 19 jersey retired by the Canadiens at Bell Centre.

In many ways, Robinson remains the aw-shucks country boy who skated into the NHL out of Marvelville, Ontario, an Ottawa Valley town so small that it doesn't have its own hospital; hence, his hometown often given as nearby Winchester, which does.

Robinson's role with the Sharks has been immense, whether he has served at training or development camps, studied and nurtured prospects in person or by video analysis, or offered wise, seasoned counsel to management.

In recent days he's texted with Wilson, DeBoer (whom he has described as "a great communicator") and Sharks players Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.

To watch Robinson walk into any arena, dressing room or public event and observe the reaction -- respect, admiration, even awe -- is one of the special things in hockey. And why not, given his remarkable competitive history and gentle personality?

This is a man who did not miss the playoffs even one time during his 20 NHL seasons; the first 17 in Montreal, the final three with the Los Angeles Kings.

Only twice was there even a possibility that Robinson wouldn't see the postseason:

In 1983-84, the Canadiens were the fourth and final qualifier in the Adams Division, then swept the Boston Bruins and knocked off the Quebec Nordiques before losing to the New York Islanders in a six-game Wales Conference Final.

In 1989-90, Robinson's Kings finished the season fourth in the Smythe Division, but eliminated the division-champion Calgary Flames in the Smythe semifinals before being swept by the Edmonton Oilers in the division final.

With the Canadiens, there was never any anxiety as the season wound down, Robinson said, "because in Montreal we never thought about making the playoffs. If we didn't win the Stanley Cup, it was a bad year. It kind of was the norm, you know?"

The Canadiens' Robinson-era success was so monotonous that Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau once dispatched a late-1970s press release stating matter-of-factly, "The Canadiens' Stanley Cup parade will follow the usual route."

Still, Robinson recalled, the Canadiens approached the playoffs as deadly serious business, a mindset he took beyond the ice into his later work as a coach and teacher.

"You prepared differently for the playoffs," he said. "Win or lose, you knew you had to be prepared for the next game. Losses were different during the season because there always was a tomorrow. In the playoffs, that's not always the case."

This will be Robinson's 13th trip to the Cup Final; he has been there seven times as a player with the Canadiens and five more in various capacities with the Devils.

He's nearing the end of his 46th year in professional hockey, not quite a year beyond a melanoma scare. Last July, Robinson had surgery for the extraction of a spot behind his left knee and a lymph node removed to make certain the cancer hadn't spread. He was pronounced healthy a few weeks later and was cleared again by doctors last week.

He and Jeannette, his wife of 45 years, relish life in Florida, where they dote on their grandchildren and live near a 12-acre farm where Robinson enjoys polo, a lifelong passion.

As for the idea of working into a 50th season in the game, he said, "I'll say no," while leaving the door open at least a crack. "I'll stay in it as long as people want me to do what I do. But I still want to be able to live my life too. I'm not getting any younger, and I haven't had a chance in I don't know how long to play with the horses and do those kind of things."

That said, you wonder when will come the day that Robinson, who still has the "CH" branded on his heart, will be welcomed back into the Canadiens family at least as an ambassador, or perhaps as a mentor for the defense.

For now, as the Sharks head into the Final, Robinson is eager to see how this playoff season will finish.

"If somebody was planning on trying to make some money on my predictions, they would have lost a lot by now," he said with a laugh. "This is what the makes the playoffs so special, that they are so unpredictable. … When everybody seemed to count the [Tampa Bay] Lightning out, they'd win games. Who would have thought that [the] Washington [Capitals] wouldn't be playing now?"

Robinson wonders how his old friend Scotty Bowman, who guided the Canadiens to Stanley Cup victories from 1976-79, would handle today's coaches' challenges and video reviews.

"You can't argue with technology, and that's the problem," he said.

And then he laughed.

"I got fined once but the League said if I kept my mouth shut for a while, they'd rescind it," Robinson said. "They were going to fine me 25 grand for something I said."

Which was almost as memorable as this:

"I made a comment about [then-referee] Kerry Fraser's hair one night," Robinson said, chuckling. "And I got a misconduct."

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