TORONTO — When you talk to people that have spent time with Stephane Robidas, the one thing that continually comes up is his uncanny attention to detail.
Randy Carlyle already identifies it in the on-ice awareness and competitive streak that have basically defined the defenceman during a 14-year NHL career. Those that know him much better, like members of the Dallas Stars organization, paint the picture of a man who possesses such a great human touch that he can’t help but leave a lasting impression on the people he meets.
That is underscored by a little-known anecdote from the end of Robidas’ tenure in Dallas last season.
He had spent 12 years in the city when the Stars shipped him to Anaheim at the trade deadline and, even though it was a mutually agreed-upon decision, this was a period of mixed emotions for everyone involved.
However, before Robidas jetted off to join one of the NHL’s top teams, he made a stop. Several of them, actually. He walked through the Stars front office and personally thanked every single person that was there.
This wasn’t just his teammates and the front office staff he dealt with on a daily basis. The folks in marketing, ticketing and promotions all got a handshake or hug as well. Everyone.
As fate would have it, the Stars went on to finish the season strong enough to sneak into the playoffs and set up a meeting with Anaheim in the first round. That meant a return of Robidas in enemy colours — although it ended up being a brief one because he suffered his second freak accident in months and broke his right leg for a second time.
It was a crushing turn of events for a 37-year-old who initially believed that it would spell the end of his hockey career.
However, less than a week after it happened, the Stars experienced their own disappointment after getting eliminated in a Game 6 on home ice. Do you know what Robidas did? He made his way into the losing locker-room afterwards to tell his former teammates how proud he was of them for persevering through a trying season and getting that far.
“They were like family,” he says now, when asked about the gesture.
It is stories like these that help explain why Toronto took a calculated gamble by signing Robidas to a $9-million, three-year deal over the summer. The risk lies in whether he can still play at a high level after twice breaking a leg.
The potential rewards are pretty clear.
Toronto has employed very few veteran players over the last couple seasons and there’s a belief within the organization that its shown in the team’s performance. Robidas is expected to help change that.
In addition to being paired with captain Dion Phaneuf for his pre-season debut on Friday night, he was assigned the dressing room stall beside him. The two men have made of point of getting to know one another better while Robidas rehabbed his leg.
They were once roommates at Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp in August 2009, but that lasted just a few days. Robidas travelled a tough road to 885 career NHL games (and counting), starting with becoming a more defensive-minded player as a pro after racking up points in junior, and he has much to share.
In fact, it wasn’t until his early 30s that he even logged top pairing minutes in Dallas.
“He’s a guy who plays the game extremely hard,” said Phaneuf. “He’s been around for a long time and he does a lot of little things very well. I’m excited to play with him. His reputation is that he might not be the biggest guy, but he plays the game.
“He plays with a lot of edge and that’s what he’s going to bring here.”
Robidas also had respectable possession numbers last season in Dallas and Anaheim, albeit with favourable offensive zone starts in just 38 games. Over the past four seasons combined, his teams controlled 50.3 per cent of even-strength shot attempts while he was on the ice.
If you’re a hockey fan that doesn’t understand why those attributes would be appealing to the Leafs, you’ve probably been living under a rock. This is a team that desperately needs to do a better job of controlling the puck than it did a year ago.
“I’m just trying to be myself — get back to where I left off last year,” said Robidas.
There is absolutely no way to know yet if that is possible, but the early returns were at least promising. He looked surprisingly mobile and comfortable while playing nearly 20 minutes during a 5-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday.
It was just his 18th game of any sort in 10 months.
Robidas believes that “85 percent” of performance is mental and he seems to be in an unbelievably positive state of mind right now.
For example, one of the benefits he’s found with moving back to a cooler climate is experiencing true fall weather again. He’d forgotten how much he liked seeing the leaves change colour and feeling the air grow colder.
It’s a time of renewal and hope.
As the first game with his new team neared this week, Robidas took time to reflect. What he couldn’t shake on Thursday night was a feeling of disbelief that he was actually going to get to play at the Air Canada Centre in a Leafs sweater.
When Friday morning arrived and he went through the morning skate and saw the crush of reporters in the dressing room it finally felt real.
“This is hockey,” he said.
In summing up the veteran’s performance at the end of the night, Carlyle paid him the biggest compliment of all: “He’s a hockey player.”