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Blues getting champion's perspective from Robinson during playoffs

Hall of Fame defenseman, nine-time Stanley Cup winner shares knowledge with coaches, players

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

DALLAS -- The St. Louis Blues have Larry Robinson's learned eyes in the sky during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Hall of Famer is having the time of his life in his return to postseason hockey.

The nine-time Stanley Cup champion is playing a vital role for Blues general manager Doug Armstrong, coach Craig Berube, assistants Steve Ott and Mike Van Ryn, as well as a roster of players who know greatness when it's in their presence.

Robinson was in the Blues staff box high above the ice at American Airlines Center on Wednesday for Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round against the Dallas Stars, a 4-2 loss that evened the best-of-7 series 2-2. The Blues host Game 5 at Enterprise Center on Friday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, SN, TVAS).

As Robinson does during every playoff game, he was speaking Wednesday to Blues coaches between periods as he felt necessary through goalie coach David Alexander's walkie-talkie, as well as taking notes with thoughts to share afterward.

"In the end, they're the guys who have to make the decisions," Robinson said of Berube and his staff. "The game looks real easy from upstairs."

Berube understands and embraces the priceless value Robinson brings to the Blues, given his success as a player, coach and in management. Robinson's pedigree is platinum: six Stanley Cup championships as a player with the Montreal Canadiens and three with the New Jersey Devils as a coach or in management, as well as winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman in 1977 and 1980, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs in 1978.

"He's obviously been a great player -- won Stanley Cups, won Stanley Cups as a coach -- so he has a lot of knowledge and has been through it all," Berube said after practice Tuesday. "It's really good to have him around for our guys. Larry talks to all our players, coaching staff, gives us information, tells us what he sees. To have a guy like that with that experience around, you can't beat it. He's an unbelievable man.

"He's got a great presence about him, but he loves to talk hockey. When you get a man like that [who's] had the success he's had as a player and a coach, it's great to have him around."

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

The respect is entirely mutual.

"Craig rightfully is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award," Robinson said, referring to the annual honor given to the NHL's top coach. "He's done a heck of a job. And you can't count out Steve Ott, Mike Van Ryn and David Alexander; they've done a terrific job too. It certainly was a group effort. 

"That's how we got here. Everybody gets together, and that's the great thing about Craig as a coach. He's not afraid to give Steve and Mike and David responsibility. I think the key to someone being a great coach is not being afraid to delegate. Get good people around you and seek their advice. Nobody knows everything. It's impossible."

Robinson, who will turn 68 on June 2, joined the Blues on Sept. 21 as senior consultant to hockey operations after having spent five seasons with the San Jose Sharks as associate coach and director of player development.

St. Louis stumbled badly out of the gate and on Nov. 19, last in the Central Division at 7-9-3, coach Mike Yeo was fired and replaced by Berube. Two nights later, at Armstrong's request, Robinson was behind the Blues bench for their road game against the Nashville Predators as an assistant to Berube, eager to help and instantly dazzled by the game he again was seeing from a few feet away.

"Getting used to the speed and the things happening," he said, not having been behind a bench since late in the 2014-15 season with the Sharks. "They were up and down and over and across and back. Holy smokes. It took me two or three games just to get used to the pace. It was amazing. I was like a deer in the headlights."

Robinson was behind the bench until Dec. 22; his final game was a 3-1 road victory against the Calgary Flames. He would return to his home in Bradenton, Florida, for a short break during the holiday season, but not before a special tribute the team paid him that night.

The Blues' player-of-the-game award after a win, passed along by each recipient, is a pair of gloves worn by St. Louis defense pillar Bob Plager during the 1967-68 season, their first in the NHL.

"Craig brought everyone into the room in Calgary -- I didn't know he was going to do this -- and told the players this was my last night," Robinson said. "They awarded me the [Plager] gloves. It was a very emotional night for me."

The Blues, trying to find their way, hadn't yet reached rock bottom. That would come just after the start of the new year, when they were last in the NHL with 34 points.

"When we started looking at things after the coaching change, the first meeting, we said, 'Holy mackerel,'" Robinson said. "Looking at the numbers, points left, games and our schedule, we said, 'We're going to have to go on one heck of a run here (to make the playoffs).' Who would have known that we'd have a winning streak of 11 games (from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19)? That's basically was the only way we were able to get back into it."

The Blues went 30-10-5 in their final 45 games during the regular season, finished third in the Central Division and defeated the Winnipeg Jets in six games in the Western Conference First Round.

Robinson joined the Blues for a couple of road trips following the All-Star break at the end of January, then was welcomed more fully back into the fold.

"I was talking to Doug and Craig and asked if they didn't mind my coming in for the playoffs," he said. "I thought it would be fun. Craig said they'd love it. Doug has been very good, he's a great guy. All the staff, the public relations guys, the trainers, the players -- they're just a fun group to be around."

That's not to say the players and staff don't enjoy ribbing a man who's 15 years older than the coach. Robinson chuckles that forward Alexander Steen calls him "Larry the Legend."

"He'll say, 'How many Cups did you win? Nine? Oh my God!'" he said with a laugh. "And David (Alexander) calls me 'Dad.' Hey, call me anything, but don't call me late for dinner."

The Blues have enjoyed success in the latter stages of the season and during the playoffs, Robinson said, "because of accountability. I think we got away from our structure earlier. But accountability is what it really comes down to -- to yourself and each other."

That's something Robinson was taught, absorbed and preached during his illustrious years with the Canadiens, his twilight seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, and into his time in coaching and management. Never once in his 20-year playing career did he miss the playoffs, from 1972-73 to 1988-89 with the Canadiens, then from 1989-90 to 1991-92 with the Kings.

He wears the Blues logo today with pride, having had little knowledge of the franchise other than seeing its crest across the ice as an opponent. Indeed, before this season, Robinson's most vivid memory of playoff hockey in St. Louis was about the weather.

"We played the Blues in the first round of the 1977 playoffs," he recalled of the NHL-record 132-point Canadiens sweeping St. Louis to begin their run toward their second of four straight championships. "What I remember most was that even in mid-April, the temperature in St. Louis was in the high 80s; it was so hot that when you'd tighten your skates, water would overflow the top of them.

"(Fellow defenseman) Serge Savard and I were rooming together. The hotel still hadn't turned on its air conditioning, so we dragged our mattresses off our beds and put them on the balcony. And then (defenseman) Guy Lapointe was injured, so Serge and I played 42, 43 minutes per game."

Forty-two years later, Robinson was reflecting on that and his hockey life over a Tuesday hotel lunch of Texas black bean soup, kale Caesar salad and ice water, wearing a Blues golf shirt, a sports jacket and khaki pants. He had just spent about 40 minutes on the ice at American Airlines Center skating with the Blues who had chosen to take part in an optional practice, passing pucks, shoveling them out a net and offering a quiet word of seasoned advice to players when not barking his praise.

In many ways, the lean, 6-foot-4 Robinson looks like he could still play today; at about 230 pounds, he's up just 10 from his playing weight. He now wears size 10 3/4 skates, up a half-size.

"Spend all that time standing and your feet get larger," he joked.

With gnarled knuckles, he'd have a hard time pushing a Stanley Cup ring onto a finger; he's been presented nine, though in fact he owns just three, having given six to members of his family.

"I don't wear them anyway; they're so big," Robinson said. "I learned very early on that I don't have a very good memory when it comes to wearing that kind of stuff. I left a ring, a watch and something else in my stall when we left Hartford after a game. Luckily, one of the arena workers found them."

Though his legacy as one of the greatest defensemen in the game was cemented long ago, his No. 19 was retired by the Canadiens in 2007 and he was selected as one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in 2017, Robinson still feels hockey's strong pull. He is relishing the dressing-room camaraderie that is unique to the game that's been a part of his life since boyhood.

He'll evaluate his future with the Blues after this season, but for now he's enjoying every moment of this playoff ride.

"As an athlete, when you really think about it, how much time do you really spend together?" Robinson asked. "To me, that's the biggest part of being a team. If you don't come together and play as a team, you'll never have any success. It's a team game. You can't do it alone.

"Back when I was coaching in New Jersey (2000-02 and for part of 2005-06), I'd tell the guys, 'Listen. Individuals win accolades and trophies, but teams win championships.' Look at all the championships that are won. No one ever asks if you're a Conn Smythe winner. They want to know if you've won the Stanley Cup."

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