All members of the Canadiens wore a No. 19 jersey for warmup on Nov. 19, 2007 when Larry Robinson’s Canadiens jersey was retired.
François Lacasse, NHLI via Getty Images
For nearly an hour on Sunday from his home in Florida, Canadiens Hall of Famer Larry Robinson spoke to Hockey Inside/Out’s Dave Stubbs about his latest brush with a coaching position with his former team. Robinson took the high road, but there’s no question he would have enjoyed the chance to work with some of the Habs’ young blue line prospects.
Here is that story:
It’s probable, even likely, that the coaching career of Larry Robinson is not over.
It just won’t be continuing with the team on which he became a Hall of Famer, winning six Stanley Cups as one of the greatest defencemen of all time.
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin rounded out his club’s coaching staff last week, naming former Habs defenceman Jean-Jacques Daigneault as the second bench assistant for head coach Michel Therrien. Daigneault joins Gerard Gallant, with Clément Jodoin contributing perspective from the press gallery and Pierre Groulx continuing his work as goaltending coach.
There had been considerable talk in the Canadiens universe since Bergevin’s May 2 hiring that Robinson, at that time an assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils, would be an ideal choice to nurture a young Montreal defence corps.
Ultimately, the composition of the coaching staff was left up to Therrien, and last Friday he decided on Daigneault as the final member of his staff.
There is no bitterness in Robinson, who a few times in the past half-dozen years has been in a contractual position to return to the Canadiens in a coaching capacity.
On several occasions, long-time Robinson friend and business agent/adviser Donny Cape has attempted to broker a deal to bring Robinson back to Montreal as a coach, team ambassador or both. For a variety of reasons, from awkward timing to telephone calls that were not returned by the club to team brass saying it was satisfied with its incumbent staff, a Robinson-Canadiens reunion has not taken place.
It is not happening again, Robinson’s NHL career now unlikely to end in the city where it began.
On Sunday, from his Florida home, Robinson spoke to me for nearly an hour.
“I understand the Canadiens had to get going, they couldn’t wait,” he said, settling into the off-season with his wife, Jeannette.
“They decided, and they chose Daigneault. They had to move on in their task to improve their club.”
It’s no secret that a number of NHL clubs have expressed interest in Robinson’s coaching talents. Complicating matters with the Canadiens was the fact that he was unable in recent days to come north for a face-to-face interview, tied down in Florida dealing with the onslaught of Hurricane Debby and the torrential rains that overflowed his swimming pool and swamped the 12-acre polo farm he co-owns, stabling and training polo horses.
I had suggested in a May 10 Gazette column that Bergevin, who was searching for his head coach, could do worse than to consider a bench tandem of Guy Carbonneau and Robinson. Carbonneau, I wrote, could return to the head-coaching post from which he was fired in early 2009 and Robinson, Carbo’s longtime friend and former teammate, could serve as one of his assistants.
Several media instantly spun this suggestion into stories that had Robinson actively courting a job in Montreal, which wasn’t the case. Still under contract to the Devils and in the heat of the playoffs – Robinson had been an assistant coach, head coach and special assignment coach on New Jersey’s Cup victories in 1995, 2000 and 2003 – he denied any such interest.
“Things are always going to be taken out of context, that’s what happens,” he said. “It didn’t bother me, (a Montreal job was) nothing I was thinking about.
“Our game is filled with rumours. That’s what gives you (media) guys your jobs and it’s what makes the world go around. People love hearing that kind of stuff. I’ve been around it all my life. You take it with a grain of salt and life goes on. Twitter, Facebook … it’s amazing.”
But a couple of days after the Devils’ Stanley Cup final loss to the Los Angeles Kings, Bergevin contacted New Jersey president and GM Lou Lamoriello to ask permission to speak to Robinson to explore coaching possibilities. Under contract until midnight on June 30, the Canadiens were obligated to follow this route.
Lamoriello gave his permission and Bergevin placed his call, which preceded a brief phone chat between Robinson and Therrien.
“The fact that the Canadiens even thought about me coming there, Marc asking Lou permission, that’s an honour,” said Robinson, who forever has taken the high road in discussion about his former team. “It honestly took me by surprise.”
The 61-year-old was packing up in New Jersey when Bergevin called, Robinson arranging to ship his belongings and two vehicles to Florida on a trip that became a nightmare because of a clumsy mover and the violent arrival down south of the hurricane.
“The mover and I got into a yelling match over the phone. It started at the side of the (polo) barn and by the time I got finished yelling at him, I was in the middle of one of the paddocks,” Robinson recalled, laughing. “I told him to stick his company up… He told me he had my $600 deposit and I said it was almost worth the deposit just to tell him to stick his company.
“It felt so good,” he said of the full-decibel venting. “I didn’t get my $600 back, but at least I felt better.”
Robinson’s assistant-coaching contract with New Jersey was to expire as the calendar turned to July 1.
“We don’t know what’s going on there right now,” he said of the team’s fragile financial situation.
Robinson’s departure ends his long New Jersey relationship with Lamoriello. The bond of the two men is so special that Robinson chose Lamoriello, and not a former coach or teammate from his glory years with the Canadiens, to introduce him on Bell Centre ice on Nov. 19, 2007 for the retirement of his No. 19 sweater.
“Lou’s an incredible person,” Robinson said. “He’s a man of his word, and there’s not many like him in this world any more. He’s one of a few special kind. I can’t say enough about what he’s done for me.”
As Robinson mopped up in Florida, Cape kept in touch with Bergevin about the versatile role Robinson might play. Other teams had expressed interest in Robinson so the Canadiens broadened their defence-coach search, casting a wider net.
Therrien apparently liked Daigneault so much, the decision was made to hire him before Robinson had a chance to interview for the job.
“Nature didn’t help me get up to Montreal and have a formal discussion with them,” Robinson said of the hurricane and his delay to meet, upon the Canadiens request, with Therrien. “We can speculate all we want about whether that made a difference. This was a decision they made and I have to live with it.”
He hears the suggestion that perhaps a hockey man of his stature, winner of nine Stanley Cups as a player and coach, might have been viewed by Therrien as a threat and would reduce the returning head coach’s comfort level.
“I would have made (Therrien) feel comfortable,” Robinson said, cutting off this theory in mid-sentence. “A lot of people think because I won a Cup as a head coach and coached for so long, I’m there only to watch (Therrien) fail so I can take the job myself.
“Believe me, that’s the furthest thing from my mind. All I want out of the game now is the fun of working with whoever I’m working with, trying to give whatever knowledge I’ve gained through my experiences to help do whatever I can to make the team better to win another Cup. That’s all I’m there for.
“I’m not there to threaten anybody’s job. That’s not the way to go through life. You have to be a pretty vindictive person if you’re there, working with a guy, and you’ve got a big dagger in your hand ready to stab him in the back. It’s not the way I was brought up and it’s not the way I work.”
Robinson says he has not personally had any discussion with Canadiens principal owner Geoff Molson about a role as a team ambassador, though Cape has had a few informal talks.
Even if Robinson wasn’t involved in coaching, a goodwill/public relations role would make perfect sense, given the greatly limited roles now of ambassadors Jean Béliveau and Henri Richard. Robinson was, in fact, named by the Canadiens themselves to their all-time dream team.
“You never close any doors,” Robinson said of returning one day to the Habs. “I don’t want to coach forever. At some point I want to lay back and enjoy my kids. I’ve got a grandson, Dylan, playing Little League baseball, I’ve got twins in California (grandchildren Blake and Brian, the latter named for Robinson’s late brother) whom Jeannette and I want to be able to spend more time with.
“And I want to be able to spend more time with my horses. I can’t continue playing polo when I’m into my 70s, though some do.
“There’s going to come a point when I don’t want to be involved in hockey on a day-to-day basis. That’s why we were thinking about some kind of job in Canadiens public relations.”
Robinson’s most recent communication with the Canadiens came last Friday when after a couple of days of phone-tag, Bergevin finally reached him to explain the team’s direction. The call came as the team announced by news release the hiring of Daigneault.
“Marc told me they’d interviewed a couple of people, Michel liked his interview with J.J. and decided to go with him,” Robinson said. “I told him, ‘It’s a business, you have a job to do and that’s what you’re doing.’
“Marc just kind of explained what went down. He had talked to Donny, who’d mentioned others teams had interest (in me) and that we weren’t going to make a decision while I was trying to clean up in Florida. I suppose the Canadiens had to cover themselves in the event I didn’t sign with them. So they chose someone else.
“I wished Marc luck and thanked him for the opportunity – at least for the thought – and we left it there.”
And just like that, one more opportunity for Larry Robinson to rejoin the Canadiens had evaporated.
“It would have been interesting maybe to get back to Montreal,” he said. “But this is a business. There are decisions made by people. Things go on in everyday life as far and business and life. If you’re a person who takes everything to heart and has a chip on your shoulder, you’re going to be an awful miserable person.”