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NHL Centennial

Seeing game through Larry Robinson's eyes

Hall of Famer hits arena to analyze NHL action, share memories

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TAMPA -- Larry Robinson is returning a call midafternoon, and it is clear he is outdoors given the white noise in the background.

"I'm on the roof, fixing the cupola of my barn," he says.

You'd rather that Robinson not be making a call while 25 feet above the ground, having climbed a stepladder and then pulled himself on a rope to the barn's summit to repair its ventilation dome. But then, you figure that if this man survived the trenches of 1,611 NHL games (including the Stanley Cup Playoffs) between 1972-92, en route to six Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens, and if he's still enjoying the physical game of polo that he's loved since he took it up more than three decades ago, a rooftop probably poses little danger.

I was planning a trip to Tampa in late February to sit with Phil and Tony Esposito to discuss the legendary brothers' careers. With Robinson, who lives an hour away, a semiregular visitor to Tampa Bay Lightning games for business and pleasure, and our conversations and meetings over many years having created a warm friendship, the idea occurred: Why not give him a call and see about taking in a game together? 

Not to sit in the press box but in the stands, to watch the action among the fans, through his eyes.

The timing of my trip is perfect. The Edmonton Oilers will be in Tampa, old-home week for Robinson and three of the visitors; he, Oilers coach Todd McLellan and assistants Jimmy Johnson and Jay Woodcroft were on the San Jose Sharks staff together for three seasons several years ago.

"I've got something to bring Jimmy before the game," he says, still on the roof. "How's 6 o'clock?"

We could spend the night discussing Robinson's milestones, highlights on his way to his Hall of Fame induction in 1995 and the Canadiens' retirement of his No. 19 in 2007.

He has two worth noting that took place today, 

March 27: In 1989, he became the first defenseman in NHL history to play 1,200 games for one team, getting three assists in the Canadiens' 5-2 win against the visiting Boston Bruins; and in 1992, within days of the final regular-season game of his 20-season NHL career, Robinson recorded his 750th and final League assist, for the Los Angeles Kings in a 6-4 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.

As director of player development for the Sharks, Robinson jokes that he's "always scouting," even when he attends a game for pleasure. He is most deeply involved with the Sharks during their summer development camps and preseason training camp, working with the NHL team and its American Hockey League affiliate in San Jose to "do whatever the coaches want me to do."

Across the continent, Robinson watches every Sharks game a few hours after the fact. 

"At home, they come on at 10:30 p.m. my time, and I'm lucky if I make it past 9:30," he says, laughing. "I usually get up at 6:30, grab my coffee and watch the game on the [digital video recorder]."

It is 6:10 p.m. when Robinson comes through a door beside the loading dock at Amalie Arena, grumbling about the traffic nightmare he had just endured from his farm. At 65, long and lean, looking to be not an ounce over the 225 pounds he carried on his 6-foot-4 frame during his playing days, he is dressed in jeans, an open-neck button-down shirt and a navy blazer. 

Security waves Robinson around the metal detector, and he walks briskly with loping strides toward the Oilers room to deliver a box containing contact lenses that his friend Johnson had shipped to his home.

His visit with the Oilers coaches lasts 15 minutes, and now Robinson is digging into his pocket to pay for his pregame meal in the press room, faceoff an hour away. The attendant won't take Robinson's $8, nor mine, proving it pays to hang with a legend.

During our dinner of cowboy chicken -- "Whatever that is," he says with a grin, making short work of it -- Robinson is visited by Wayne Gretzky, now a partner and vice chairman with Oilers Entertainment Group who is on this road trip, and Edmonton general manager Peter Chiarelli. We're joined at our table by David Conte, special adviser to hockey operations for the Vegas Golden Knights and a longtime friend of Robinson's from when both were with the New Jersey Devils.

Now and always, no matter how much Robinson and I talk about the present and future of hockey, we always drift into his glorious past. I tell him that surely his two most famous YouTube videos feature him breaking the Montreal Forum boards with Philadelphia Flyers forward Gary Dornhoefer in 1976, and pounding Broad Street Bullies heavyweight Dave "The Hammer" Schultz to the Forum ice during a benches-clearing brawl in 1974.

"I haven't seen (Dornhoefer) in about 30 years, Dave in longer than that," Robinson says with a sigh, capping a tall cup of coffee for the walk to our seats five minutes into the pregame warmup.

The Lightning front office has set us up nicely in Section 117, 18 rows up from the ice between the blue line and faceoff circle of the end the home team will defend for two periods.
The first thing Robinson says as he sits, untangling his long legs, is to beware of stray pucks that might miss the screen stretching from the corner and end glass to the ceiling. And then he spreads open the fingers of his right hand, displaying a thick lump in the palm a couple inches below his ring finger.

"I was out with an injury, at a game at the Montreal Forum in the late '70s with my wife, Jeannette, high behind the net, and a shot by Rick Chartraw came up over the glass before they had the safety screen. It would have hit Jeannette right in the face but I threw my hand out like this," Robinson says, reaching at arm's length, "and the puck hit me in the palm."

He recalls catching the puck to an ovation from fans who were unaware that he was wincing in pain with what he believes was a broken hand, a splintered bone calcifying into a lump that serves as a daily reminder of his career's greatest save.

The game is just underway when Robinson singles out the Oilers' Leon Draisaitl for praise, commenting about the center's impressive play for Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in September. 
"He's a fine young player," Robinson says of the 21-year-old native of Cologne, Germany.

A few minutes later the home team opens the scoring, on their way to a 4-1 victory, Ondrej Palat converting a pass on a 2-on-1 break with Nikita Kucherov to bury his first of two on this night.

"Did you see what the D (defenseman) did there?" Robinson immediately says of the Oilers' Matt Benning, turning his hands this way and that to diagram the play. "He committed to Kucherov, turned right to him, and that opened the lane for the pass. He didn't have to make that turn."

If he were behind the Oilers bench, would Robinson have had a word with Benning, to explain or gently remind of a better option?

"Yes," he replies, "because that's absolutely the best time to do it." 

It's both an education and a walk through a bit of Robinson's life as he dissects the action on the ice, critiquing plays and players with a few words or in fine detail, often with a wave of his hands, using the air as his canvas.

Video: Larry Robinson vital cog on six Cup-winning teams

His flashbacks are delightful. He speaks of his summer fitness program when he played, devoid of nutritionists and personal trainers; one year, he suited up for 64 games of high-quality baseball throughout the Ottawa Valley, pitching and patrolling center field for two teams.

Robinson watches a scoreboard tribute to Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness, who passed the legendary Scotty Bowman four games prior for the League's all-time lead in NHL games coached at 2,165.

"Rick's got to be a sucker for punishment," he jokes, recalling that Bowness's late mother, Thelma, worked as a secretary for Al MacNeil, coach of the AHL's Nova Scotia Voyageurs, in the early 1970s when Robinson was nearing his NHL debut.

Becoming coach of the Kings in 1995 gave Robinson an appreciation for the profession "big time," he says.

"A player goes home after the game and it's over," he says. "For a coach, that's just the start, preparing for the next one."

At the end of the first period, a man one row in front of us politely approaches with his young son to ask for a photo and an autograph, and Robinson gladly obliges.

"I'm a Bruins fan so I should hate you," the man says, taking the photo from beneath a Boston Red Sox cap. "But you smoked the (Philadelphia) Flyers in the 1976 Stanley Cup Final, so … "

Robinson pulls out his phone during the first intermission to proudly share photos of twin grandsons Blake and Brian, age 11; a polo horse he sponsors; his 12-acre farm; a few nice vehicles.

Tampa Bay is up 2-0 midway through the second period when the Oilers give themselves a breath of life, Iiro Pakarinen splitting the Lightning defense for a goal on a quick break after being smartly fed by Oscar Klefbom.

"That's a San Jose play," Robinson says brightly. "Fake the dump-in and throw it down the middle."

At one point the ice is littered with broken featherweight sticks, a far cry from the robust, heavy lumber he carried at the start of his own career. He shakes his head at the exploding composites, and he's a coach once more.

"A slash on the stick doesn't always break the stick but it's weakened," Robinson said. "I'd tell my players late in the game before a key faceoff, 'Take a new stick.' " 

It is 2-1 for the home team at the end of 40 minutes when Robinson and I exit Amalie Arena, a few hours after we'd met at his never-mind security scan and his/our free dinner. My notebook is full, and his drive won't be choked with traffic if he hits the road now.

We're alone on the sidewalk as Robinson considers whether he sees an NHL game differently now than when he was a player or a coach, his name engraved on the Stanley Cup nine times.

"I have the same eyes that I had before," he says with a shrug. "There are a lot of things I like about the game and a lot of things I don't like. Stuff that we used to be able to do when we were players, well, today I'd spend 90 percent of my time in the penalty box. To go to the net now, there's nothing to it. Go. There's no hooking, no holding."

It is with wistful thoughts of his good old days of no-holds-barred defense that Robinson turns and is gone, driving into a warm Tampa darkness, past the palm trees on Old Water Street, bound for home.

And he might even sleep in, his DVR enjoying a rest. His Sharks don't play for another four nights.

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