Road to greatness

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:51 PM ET

MARVELVILLE -- The road from this hamlet south of Ottawa to Montreal goes east and north to Hwy. 417. For Larry Robinson, it was paved with the work ethic of a farmer's son.

Broke after his first year in pro hockey, and with a young wife and son, Robinson worked on the paving crew -- 7 a.m.-7 p.m. -- on the 417 between Russell and Maxville in the summer of 1972.

Robinson made just $7,500 the previous winter playing for the Canadiens' AHL farm team in Halifax. With wife Jeannette and son Jeffrey, money was stretched thin, especially when the team went on a long playoff run and won the Calder Cup.

Back here for the summer, Robinson needed the cheque that came with the hot, long hours on the highway.

"The extra month it took to end my season cost me extra money to stay in Halifax," wrote Robinson in his autobiography, Robinson For The Defence.

"It was especially hot times for a guy who earned his salary on ice; when we were laying pavement in high summer it was often a hundred or more Fahrenheit."

Robinson, big and rawboned and whose potential was obscured by his sometimes gangly awkwardness, didn't want to have to take a summer job again.

He started the following season with Nova Scotia, was called up halfway through and never went back.

Robinson wound up helping the Canadiens beat the Blackhawks for the first of his six Stanley Cups with Montreal, embarking on a career that would see him become one of the game's most influential defencemen.

The winners' share of that Stanley Cup victory was $19,000 a player, a king's ransom for a young man off a dairy farm in the gently rolling hills of Eastern Ontario.

"I had one more chore to finish before I could settle back and enjoy the off-season," wrote Robinson. "I'd have to call the boys on the 417 construction crew with my regrets. I wouldn't be joining them (that) summer."

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Tonight at the Bell Centre, they will finally raise the No. 19 Robinson wore with glory, class and menace for 17 seasons on the Canadiens' blue line.

Robinson had been cut by the Ottawa 67's and quit the Cornwall junior club when they took him in a back room and cut his hair. He wound up playing for the Brockville Braves in the CJHL and went on to the Kitchener Rangers of the OHA. The Canadiens drafted him in 1971.

Ken Dryden, the Canadiens' Hall of Fame goalie, remembers the first time he saw the awkward farmer boy from Marvelville. It was against Minnesota and injuries on the blue line resulted in Robinson being called up from Nova Scotia.

"When I walked into the dressing room before the game, there he was, already half-dressed, looking taller, more rawboned, more angular than he does now," wrote Dryden in his outstanding memoir, The Game.

"With our defence depleted, seeing Robinson didn't make me feel any better."

But Robinson played well and stuck with the team, spending time after practice working with assistant coach Claude Ruel, who, along with defenceman Noel Price, a teammate in Nova Scotia; and Al MacNeil, the coach there, were among the most influential in his career.

"I was right on the brink of being sent to the East Coast League and (MacNeil) had a nice talk with me," said Robinson. "He told me, 'Listen, you're a big boy, you're 6-foot-4 and unless you use your body and play a little tougher, you're not going to survive in this league.' "

Within three years, Robinson had emerged as a dominant defencemen.

"Talk about a defenceman who could do everything," said Michel Goulet, the Hall of Famer and former Nordiques winger who clashed with Robinson at the height of the Battle of Quebec. "He had size, he had offence, he had defence."

Guy Carbonneau, the Canadiens' current coach and a Robinson teammate on the 1986 Cup champions, saw something unique in Robinson, whose size and often unruly hair earned him the nickname "Big Bird," after the Sesame Street character.

"There was maybe one big guy like that a team, if that, and I would say half of them couldn't skate. They were fighters. He was something that was rare. His mobility was really good."

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In 2005, Robinson said the retirement of his number -- if it happened --"is almost going to be anticlimactic."

Robinson was disappointed his parents, who had passed away, did not have the chance to see his number retired and he felt a promise was broken.

His departure from the Canadiens in 1989 was bitter and Robinson was portrayed as demanding his number be retired, which earned a rebuke from his idol, Jean Beliveau.

Robinson wrote that then-GM Serge Savard had said Robinson's number would be retired when he finished his playing days with the club.

When he was not offered a contract, Robinson left and played the last three years of his career in Los Angeles.

The years since have ground the edge off his bitterness.

"It's a great honour, more so maybe than the Hall of Fame," Robinson said a few days ago. "The Montreal Canadiens were our family. You look up on the wall and the number of players that have played for this organization that are now in the Hall of Fame, it's incredible.

"You never forget your roots and certainly I will never forget mine. I don't leave home. I always come back."

His roots are here, on the road in Marvelville that bears his name, by the family dairy farm, the road to Montreal winding its way through the creeks and ponds upon which Robinson and his brothers skated for hours in winter.

Larry Robinson Rd., one street over from the little red-brick Marvelville Community Centre, cutting among the dry corn stalks that rustle in a cold November wind, a 2-km stretch of gravel lined with evergreens, farms and a few modest bungalows.

It is much like the man for which it is named: Gritty and without pretense, cut in the heart and at the root of Eastern Ontario farming country.

BIG BIRD

- Born: June, 2, 1951 in Winchester

- Played 20 NHL seasons, 17 with Montreal, three with Los Angeles

- Scored 208 goals and had 750 assists in 1,383 regular-season games; 144 points in 227 playoff games.

- Won six Stanley Cups (1973, '76-'79, '86) with Montreal.

- Won the Norris Trophy in 1997 and 1980.

- Won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1978.

- Member of Team Canada in 1976, '81 and '84 Canada Cups.

- Named to Canadiens' 75th anniversary team in 1985.

- Inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.


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