The early chapters of the Robin Lehner story include the familiar names of Henrik Lundqvist, Roberto Luongo, Kristian Huselius and Mike Keenan.
The author of those pages, meanwhile, is Michael Lehner.
Deemed the Senators goalie of the future, Robin Lehner didn’t start playing hockey until he was 10 — or a little more than eight years ago. When he decided he wanted to be the guy who stopped pucks and that he wanted to play in the NHL, his father put him on a fast track.
Michael Lehner became his coach.
“What can I say?,” Robin shrugs when asked about the impact his dad had on his career. “He’s the reason I’m standing here now. We’ve been a team.”
Michael Lehner was on Sweden’s national martial arts team. He became interested in goaltending, and he applied the importance of positioning in his sport to the positioning of the masked man between the pipes.
From there, he began training athletes. One of them was Huselius, now a nine-year NHL veteran who plays with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but was then a rising star with Vastra Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League.
In his last year with Frolunda, Huselius played with Lundqvist, who in turn became an acquaintance, then a pupil, of Lehner.
In fact, for the 4˝ years before he joined the New York Rangers, Lundqvist’s goalie coach was Michael Lehner.
“He was almost ready to give up hockey when we met, because they sent him down to the minors, and he was really, really depressed,” Michael says. “So we started to work, and slowly, slowly he came back into it. Today you can see he’s doing pretty well.”
Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the world. Yeah, he’s doing pretty well.
When Huselius went to the Florida Panthers as a second-round pick in 2002, Lehner went to visit him. There, he watched two people whose skills he would use in developing his son. Keenan, the hard-ass Panthers coach, and Luongo, their stud goalie.
From them, indirectly, was born Robin Lehner’s technique and attitude.
Michael watched Luongo practice, and not wanting to go straight to Lundqvist with what he learned, he first passed it on to “the kid, the small guy.
“If it worked with Robin, then I took it to Henrik,” Michael Lehner remembers. “I said test this. So we had small experiments all the time. That’s how everything started. Everything was to help him. Because he was 10 years old when he started hockey. The first 10 years, he didn’t see me, because I was working all the time. So I thought, if he wants to do this, I won’t have any other goalie coach be there. I’ll help him as much as I can myself.”
Robin remembers his dad getting rid of the lawn in the backyard and replacing it with concrete. A net went up, a shooting machine was purchased.
At 12, Robin wanted pucks fired as hard as he could get them. Michael bought him an adult catching mitt, with extra padding, and cranked the machine up to 100 mph.
“He always wanted to go hard. He likes to work out hard,” Michael says. “But we had some problems. In Sweden, we have this government thing, if you mistreat your kids the neighbours will call and they can come and visit you, see what’s going on. So the neighbour called and said that I’m an abusive father, because I shoot the puck machine and he’s just crying all the time. They came and investigated, but there was no problem.”
Robin laughs when he recalls the incident.
“I think I gave him a little bit of attitude, a puck came when I wasn’t ready and I got it on my arm,” he says. “My neighbours saw it, they called Child Services ... it was brutal. My neighbours tried to do everything to get it away. It was just jealousy, I think.”
To make his son strong mentally, Michael borrowed from Iron Mike.
“From the beginning, I showed him the life Kristian had, and the life Henrik had,” Michael Lehner says, “and I asked him: ‘What do you want to do?’ He said, ‘I want to do this.” I said OK, then I’ll push you. When you want to quit, you tell me, but I’m going to be very, very hard on you. He didn’t say anything. He just kept going. And I was tougher and tougher and tougher.
“So mentally, I think he’s got no problem. He can have one or two or three really bad games, but still he can recover pretty good. I think that’s the most important thing. The mentality and the psychological part of it. Keenan was very tough ... and I was the Keenan on Robin when he was young. So that’s nothing new to him, if he comes over and has a very tough coach. I’ve been very tough on him.”
Sometimes, Robin would rebel.
“It’s been tough on both of us, very tough,” Michael says. “A lot of hard words. And then of course his mother is always protecting him. Of course, I’m always the bad guy.”
Robin says the “dad and son relationship was kind of lost for a lot of years” when he was growing up.
“It’s been paying off now. That relationship is definitely grown in again,” Robin says, “but (back then) we could never be together as a father and son. It was always coach and player. I could play good, it didn’t matter. I still got (crap).”
Robin, who spent last season in the Soo, has a seven-year-old sister, Mija. She’s in Sweden and missing her big brother dearly.
“He called a couple of days ago and said he was going to look for an apartment,” the 45-year-old Michael says. “She was very upset with him. If he’s going to have an apartment here, that means he’s going to move here. So he’s not allowed to do that. He has to stay in a hotel, because then he’s going back.”
But no, Robin isn’t going back. He’s almost certainly going to live in Binghamton this fall. For how long, no one knows. Ultimately, he’ll make his home in Ottawa. Senators fans should hope it’s for a long time.
Michael, who’s been with his son through the early days of training camp, is going back home Sunday to his part-time job as goaltending coach (his stable includes Johan Holmqvist in Frolunda, two Russian national team goalies, and the Belarusian national team goalie) and his company, which has produced a wood stain that can’t catch fire. He’d like to get a job in North America some day, being a goalie coach in the NHL would be nice, but until then, he’ll be cheering on his son — and leaving the coaching of Robin to Senators goalie coach Rick Wamsley.
“If he can play a little bit aggressive, coming out a little big, coming back ... that’s good,” Michael says when asked what Robin has to work on. “Then he will cover the net very good, because he’s a big guy. Then the rebounds, the rebound control, and to be there on the second.
“That’s what he needs to work on. For now, he’s just 19, I’m happy that he can do the first very good. The second, he’s working on that one.”
Michael says he can’t compare Robin to Lundqvist at the same age, mostly because the latter didn’t play at this level until he was 22. Can he be as good as King Henrik some day?
“Yeah, for sure,” Michael says. “I think that’s his first goal. To be not as good, beyond that. You have to have that goal. If you don’t, you won’t reach anywhere.”
Becoming better than Lundqvist might make Robin Lehner the best in the world. That would be a pretty good chapter in the story, wouldn’t it?