"If they're going to retire his number, I hope they do it before I'm gone."
Eighty-two year old Les Robinson, Larry's father.
Larry Robinson was born on June 2, 1951, in the small agricultural community of Winchester, Ontario (30 kilometers south of Ottawa) to Les and Isabel Robinson. Little could his parents know that their progeny would become one of the best defensemen to ever play the game of hockey. During his youth he played as many sports as he possibly could - this would help immensely as he grew taller than most during his teenage years, allowing him to remain agile. It was apparently at this time he obtained the nickname Big Bird, which would stick with him throughout the rest of his life.
Robinson was a Chicago Blackhawks fan, even though most in the area were Habs fans. "The reason I didn't like the Montreal Canadiens was because they won all the time", mentioned Robinson in one interview. He wanted to play for the Ottawa 67s minor league team, however he ended up playing in Brockville first, for coach Barry Fraser. The team only had two defensemen at the time so Fraser asked Robinson if he would switch from forward, his normal position, to defense. It would prove to be a wise decision to accept.
Larry Robinson, the Professional Player
A gangly 6 feet, 4 inches (1.9 meters) tall, Larry at twenty years of age was an unknown quantity coming into the 1971 NHL Draft. He had played well for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHA (Ontario Hockey Association), counting 51 points in 61 games, impressive for a young defenseman. Still, there were questions about whether he had the speed and agility to properly play hockey at the NHL tempo. The Montreal Canadiens had obtained many draft picks in '71 due to the agressive dealing of 'Trader' Sam Pollock, their general manager, so they decided to take a flyer on Robinson with their fourth pick of the draft. Larry ended up being taken in the second round, 20th overall, the fourth defenseman taken in the draft.
Robinson would be assigned to Montreal's farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs of the AHL, for the 1971-72 season. He would play a sound defensive game and would help lead the team to the Calder Cup, the AHL's championship with a spectacular performance in the playoffs. Robinson credits Voyageurs coach Al MacNeil, a former NHL defenseman, with his advice for young Larry to use his size to his advantage, to become a tougher player if he wanted to make it in the NHL.
During the next season, Robinson would be called up to Montreal from Nova Scotia, due to injury troubles on the big club. MacNeil gave one last piece of advice to his protege, to make an impact during his first shift by thunderously hitting someone. Larry did as told and would stay with the club from then on, his #19 jersey would be a mainstay of the club for seventeen seasons. The Habs, as they did every year back then, were in the playoffs in 1973, and Larry started them off on the bench, working out hard. Injuries would again open the door, and Robinson seized the opportunity, scoring an overtime goal in the second game of their series against the Flyers. He would go on to lift the Stanley Cup in his first season, and had made it as a Hab.
The Canadiens were blessed with incredible talent in those years, and Larry maintains he was blessed playing with Serge Savard in a defensive pairing for his first seven years in the league. "He helped me a tremendous amount. He was the guy who always covered up for my mistakes. He told me just to go and he'd stay back. That's how it went for all those years we won the Cup." Larry began developing offensively, hitting 61 points in his third season. It would be the start of fourteen straight seasons with at least 40 points, an incredible streak for a defenseman in the NHL.
Robinson would be part of the Big Three on defense during the Canadiens' dynasty of the late 1970s, along with Serve Savard and Guy Lapointe. These three would easily be #1 defensemen on any other team, and Montreal was lucky to have them all. The fact the team also had a plethora of offensive talent would ensure their awe-inspiring regular season records and four straight Stanley Cups.
During the 1976-77, season, for example, the Canadiens would lose just eight games during their eighty game schedule, and Larry was a big part of the team. His plus-minus rating for the year was a mind-boggling +120, and he scored 85 points that year. That year would see him win his first of two Norris Trophies as best defenseman in the league, as well as a selection as a league First-Team All-Star. The 1977-78 season would see Larry lead the team to the Stanley Cup, with 21 points in 15 games, leading to his winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, a rare honour for a defenseman to win. He would be selected First-Team All-Star in 1979 and 1980, and would win the Norris again in 1980. He was also named Second-Team All-Star in 1978.
Larry would continue with the Canadiens for another decade, providing veteran leadership to a team undergoing flux as it attempted to rebuild itself to glory after the end of its '70s dynasty. Teams like the New York Islanders and the Edmonton Oilers had overtaken the Habs, and it would take the efforts of his old friend Serge Savard, named Habs general manager in 1984, to help turn the team around.
The 1985-86 season would be the result. The core from the championship teams of yesteryear - Robinson, team captain Bob Gainey and Mario Tremblay - were surrounded by youth. Larry seemed inspired by the young players, and scored 82 points that year, which would stand as his second highest total of his career. This lead to him being selected a Second-Team All-Star, his last selection to the season-end All-Star teams (he would add ten All-Star Game appearances). 1986 is memorable for Montreal fans as the year Patrick Roy improbably led the team to the Stanley Cup, and Robinson hoisted the Cup for the last time, his sixth championship trophy.
Robinson would play three more years for the Habs, culminating in the 1988-89 season, when he would again attempt to lead the Habs to the Cup. Alas, the team lost to the Calgary Flames in six games in the Stanley Cup final, and Larry would leave the team as a free agent to the Los Angeles Kings after the season due to Montreal not exercising their option on his services. Larry would enjoy three more years in the NHL playing with the greatest hockey player to ever wear a uniform, Wayne Gretzky, and would appear in the playoffs for a NHL record twenty consecutive seasons. Larry would be selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995, enshrining his career forever. Also, The Hockey News would select him the 24th best player in the history of the NHL in their 100 Greatest Players special issue in 1998.
Larry was beloved in Montreal, and was one of the first professional players to learn French to better relate to the fans in La Belle Province. In 1985 the fans chose the Habs All-Time roster on the occasion of the team's 75th anniversary, and Larry was selected to the team, alongside Doug Harvey, arguably one of the best defensemen in the history of the league.
"If you're ever going to play in a place that's going to help your career, it's Montreal. 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."
Larry Robinson on playing in Montreal.
Larry Robinson, the Coach
Larry Robinson had thought about coaching near the end of his career, and got the chance when the New Jersey Devils had an opening for assistant coach in 1993. He would help the Devils' defensive corps reach new heights, and instilled a sense of defensive responsibility in players like Scott Stevens, who credits Robinson with his turnaround from an offense-first defenseman to one of the league's elite defensive-defensemen. He won a seventh Stanley Cup (as assistant coach) in 1995. Robinson's good work would lead to a head coaching job with the Los Angeles Kings in 1995. There, he led the team through four tough seasons, reaching the playoffs only once. At the conclusion of the 1998-99 season, Robinson was fired.
The next season, Robinson had re-joined the Devils as an assistant coach under head coach Robbie Ftorek. The Devils played well that year however there were rumours of locker room divisions and Ftorek was fired with just eight games remaining in the regular season schedule. Larry was named head coach, and he improbably coached the team all the way to the 2000 Stanley Cup championship, winning his eighth as well as his first as head coach. He then coached the Devils back to the Cup finals the next year, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in seven games. Unfortunately for Larry, he was fired 51 games into the 2001-02 season after a poor start by the Devils, replaced by Kevin Constantine.
Larry was re-hired by the Devils for a third time just a month after his mid-season firing, as an assistant coach. It is a true measure of his self-confidence that he was able to proudly serve under the head coach that replaced him. He would then be named Devils special assignment coach following the season, a newly created position that gives him a lot of flexibility befitting his standing in the organization. He won his ninth Stanley Cup in this position as the Devils won the 2003 Stanley Cup against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
Larry Robinson is undoubtedly one of the finest players to ever play the game. He was a warrior who played at the highest level seen of any Canadiens defenseman since Doug Harvey, and considering it has been fifteen years since he has left Montreal it is time for the organization to retire his #19 jersey. It is clear that this is at least planned to happen - no player is allowed to wear the number, and it is clear that to do so would be impossible to contemplate - Larry Robinson is the very essence of Montreal's #19 jersey, forever.
I plea to the Montreal Canadiens organization to please retire his number now, so that Les Robinson may see his son's jersey raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre. Please, before it is too late.
Update: Les Robinson passed away on March 14, 2004, at the age of 82.
-www.hockeydraftcentral.com/1971/71020.html (Hockey Draft Central - Larry Robinson)
-www.hockeysandwich.com/robinson.html (Hockey Sandwich - Larry Robinson)
-www.legendsofhockey.net/html/spot_oneononep199502.htm (Legends of Hockey, Hockey Hall of Fame - One on One with Larry Robinson)
-www.newjerseydevils.com/2003/devilsinfo/profiles/coaches/robinson.html (New Jersey Devils - Larry Robinson)
-www.hockeydb.com (The Internet Hockey Database)