MONTREAL — In his new autobiography, defence great Larry Robinson says he regrets not finishing his playing career with the Montreal Canadiens.
He is happy with how his life turned out after he left Montreal following the 1988-89 season to finish his 20-year National Hockey League career with the Los Angeles Kings.
But in “The Great Defender: My Hockey Odyssey” (Fenn M&S), a book co-written by Kevin Shea that went on sale Nov. 8, the 63-year-old admits that “if I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t finish my career in Montreal.”
Robinson, now in player development for the San Jose Sharks, picked up on that point in a recent interview while visiting Montreal for the jersey retirement of former teammate Guy Lapointe, a fellow member of the Big Three on defence in the Canadiens dynasty days in the 1970s.
The Marvelville, Ont., native said he wasn’t looking to leave Montreal, but was blown away by the three-year contract offer (at the then-whopping sum of $400,000 per season) he received as a free agent from former Kings owner Bruce McNall to move west and finish his playing days skating with Wayne Gretzky.
The Canadiens general manager at the time was the third member of the Big Three, Serge Savard, who balked at paying that much for a defenceman whose best years were behind him.
“I regret it because you want to finish with the same team,” said Robinson. “It’s nostalgic, but I know I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I had. Because I played in L.A., I was able to go back there and coach later on. But I still would have liked to start and end my career in the same place.
“There’s a time on a team where they decide to go with younger players and that’s what they did. I respected that. It just happened that it was my old roommate that made the decision. But I don’t begrudge Serge. It was a crazy offer. I wouldn’t have offered that to myself, because I knew I was on the down part of my career. It was a lot for an old fart like me.”
Robinson won six Stanley Cups in his 17 seasons in Montreal, where he was a key piece of one of the greatest teams in NHL history along with Lapointe, Savard, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire, Bob Gainey and others.
They won four years in a row from 1976 to 1979, after which the squad began to split up, with star players either retiring or moving on to other teams.
Robinson and Gainey stayed on to win another Cup on a young team in 1986 backstopped by rookie goalie Patrick Roy.
Nostalgia for those heady times was in the air as Lapointe had his No. 5 raised to the Bell Centre ceiling on Saturday. Robinson had his No. 19 retired in 2007, a year after Savard’s No. 18.
Robinson said the 1970s Canadiens pushed each other to greatness, and it helped that in those pre-free agency days that a group of players could stay together far longer than they do now.
“I’ve heard from many people that they liked to come to our practices because a lot of time they were better than the games,” he said. “What made us good is that we drove each other.
“It was friendly competition, but it was still competition. You have to challenge each other. We had great teams, but each year there was always (only) one or two that changed and that’s how we were able to keep having good teams.
“But there comes a point where your core group gets older. That’s what happened to a lot of teams. It happened to Edmonton and the (New York) Islanders. Bob Gainey and I took the brunt of it when we got into the 1980s. Our core group was gone and now, all of a sudden, it was our fault the team wasn’t playing better.”
White the 1970s team was loaded with talent, there were no favourites in the dressing room. Not even Lafleur, who until Gretzky came along was probably the best and certainly the most thrilling player to watch in the NHL.
“To us, (Lafleur) was just Flower,” said Robinson. “So he’d get his skate laces cut, or get powder in his face, or whatever, the same as everybody else. Everybody was treated the same.
“Now they made a big deal about ‘oh he’s a top-six forward or a bottom-six, or he’s a seventh defenceman.’ There was none of that. You were on an offensive line or a checking line. You were defender or you were an offensive player. People are categorized much more today than back then.”
In his heyday, the six-foot-four Robinson was a presence on the ice. He was not only one of the hardest hitters in the league and perhaps its most feared fighter, as his mauling of Philadelphia tough guy Dave (The Hammer) Schultz attested, but he was also a top rushing defenceman.
In his best season in 1976-77, he had 19 goals and 85 points and was plus-120. He won two Norris Trophies as the league’s top rearguard and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995. The statistic he is most proud of is his career plus-730.
Some feel the Canadiens saved hockey by ending Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies’ run of Cups in 1974 and 1975 by playing with skill and finesse, but having some brawn in players like Robinson, Pierre Bouchard and Rick Chartraw helped.
There has already been a biography, “Robinson For The Defence,” that was released in 1988 and co-written by Chyrs Goyens.
Robinson originally wanted to update that one, but when it couldn’t be arranged, he went ahead with a new book adding details of his time as a coach. He did it on the urging of his daughter and son-in-law, so his grandchildren can read of his accomplishments.
After retiring as a player, Robinson won a Cup in 1995 as assistant coach in New Jersey, another as head coach of the Devils in 2000 and again as an assistant there in 2003.
In between, he spent four years as head coach in Los Angeles. He joined the Sharks as an assistant coach in 2012.
But mostly he is remembered as the towering defenceman with the mop of sandy-coloured curls who ruled the blue-line in the 1970s.
“We had a great team,” he said. “I try to get that across to our guys in San Jose, to (help them) get over that hump. It’s a team that’s always been close (to winning a Cup) but never passed that last step.
“I say the closer as you are as a family, when things get tight, the more you bind together. That’s what made (the Canadiens) strong. We were a tight-knit group that would go through fire and water just to help the other guy out.”
He admits it’s more difficult to have that feeling of kinship in today’s NHL.
“It’s different now because you have different cultures, people from all over the world playing, and you don’t have the longevity,” he said. “Most of us, back in the day, played eight, nine years together.
“Today, if you play three or four years together you’re lucky. There’s no more loyalty. Loyalty is (to) your bank account.”