Sunday, 16 September 2012

TBC: Robinson For The Defence

Having read a couple of books about the games between Canada and the Soviet Union, I went looking for other books about either the games or players that played the game. One of the better games that has ever been played was the 1975 New Year's Eve game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Soviet Central Red Army team. One of the key players in that game, and for the Canadiens in general, was Larry Robinson. The Norris Trophy winner was voted as one of the greatest Canadiens of all-time, but how much do you really know about the man they called "Big Bird"? Teebz's Book Club is proud to present Robinson For The Defence, written by Larry Robinson with Chrys Goyens and published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited in 1988. The autobiographical look at Robinson's career before his playing days ended made this book quite interesting to me, and the stories he used in the book were told with humor and Robinson's view on the world. This book is entertaining and excellent.

Larry Robinson's career as an author isn't as illustrious as his career on the ice, but Chrys Goyens' career may not be as well-known. At the time of publishing, Goyens was 39 years of age. He started out covering sports for The Canadian Press and the Associated Press at the tender age of 19. His love of hockey began to show, and he began appearing in a number of well-known newspapers - The Toronto Star, The Gazette, and Sporting Life. He spent time on the radio with CFCF and CJAD in Montreal, but returned to writing, penning his most famous book Montreal Canadiens: Lions In Winter. He and his wife currently live in Montreal, Quebec.

If you ask a few historians, Larry Robinson's story started in three towns, not just one! Robinson was born in Winchester, Ontario, and grew up in Marvelville on a dairy farm. Marvelville was a one-room school house kind of town, but the people loved their sports. The hockey rink that Larry Robinson learned to skate on was a pond, and that eventually became the creeks that snaked along and between the farms. When it was finally iced, the rink behind the schoolhouse was the meeting place for the town kids. Larry Robinson would be a fixture on the ice in Marvelville until his father sold the farm, moving the family to Metcalfe.

Larry was a bigger kid due to his height, and he actually played forward for a long time. When he was 16, he earned a tryout with the OHA's Ottawa 67's after impressing scouts while playing with the Metcalfe Jets, a Junior-B team. Robinson didn't last long in Ottawa as he was sent back down to Junior-B. Robinson was set on playing Junior-A, so he called Cornwall and asked for a shot. The opportunity in Cornwall ended when team officials deemed his hair too long and basically cut it all off, prompting Robinson to walk away from Cornwall.

Robinson went back to Ottawa only to discover that they had scheduled a game against Cornwall later that week! Thanks to a miserable ice storm and some white-knuckle driving, Robinson arrived late for the game and was banished to the stands as punishment. It was there that he met Dan Dexter who offered him a shot at playing for the Brockville Braves of the Central Ontario Junior A Hockey League. And it was Dan Dexter who convinced Robinson to play defence because of his size. He would spend two seasons in Brockville becoming one of the circuit's best rearguards. Because of his development, the Kitchener Rangers asked Larry Robinson to join their team, and his OHA career was underway!

At 17, Robinson met Jeannette Lamirande, and it wasn't roses to start. Larry and a friend crashed a party at the Lamirande's house down the street, and Larry was initially interested in Jeannette's sister, Pauline! But after breaking up with her long distance boyfriend, Jeannette began attending Larry's hockey games with the Brockville Braves despite her hating hockey. As Jeannette wrote, "He definitely got me on the rebound, which for a defenceman probably makes all the sense in the world." From his writing, Larry figured it was in late winter or early spring when Jeannette and himself would have a short conversation that involved the word "oops". By September, husband Larry, wife Jeannette, and new addition Jeffrey were on their way to Kitchener for OHA training camp.

Since I've pretty much paraphrased the first 75 pages or so, let's get to the meat. Larry Robinson was drafted in 1971, the same draft that saw Guy Lafleur go first overall to the Canadiens and Marcel Dionne second overall. Robinson was actually Montreal's fourth pick of draft, and he was selected 20th overall! He spent time with the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, maturing and learning the Canadiens' way of doing things with other greats such as Bob Gainey, Yvon Lambert, Larry Pleau, and Michel Plasse. The Voyageurs, along with Robinson, would make history as the first Canadian-based team to win the AHL's Calder Cup in 1972!

Robinson was asked to join the Montreal Juniors of the QMJHL against the Moscow Selects on December 12, 1972 in front of goaltending legend Jacques Plante (which Plante spoke about in his book)! With Robinson and Plante in the lineup, the Montreal Juniors downed the Moscow Selects 2-1! His next big game would be his first NHL game: January 8, 1973 versus the Minnesota North Stars in Montreal. He would never play in the minor leagues again after that. All he would do from that point on is win six Stanley Cups, two Norris Trophies, and a Conn Smythe Trophy. Not too shabby for a kid who didn't crack an OHA roster until he was 18.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned about Larry Robinson is that he has another sport that he passionately loves. I would have never guessed that this sport would be on his list of passions, but Larry Robinson fell in love with polo.
"Polo is a very social game and it was not long before Jeannette and I were caught up in the polo whirl and had met and befriended a neighbouring couple, Julien and Celia Allard. The Allards loaned me my first horse to play and practice on. In short, that's how a lumbering NHL defenceman became involved in a very different game. Today I've got five horses of my own. The Allard's daughter Linda is our groom; she comes over and looks after my horses when I'm on the road.

I'm looking forward to polo and raising horses after hockey is over. I see it as a serious endeavour, not just a hobby or distraction.
I consider myself pretty lucky to have found Robinson For The Defence because the publisher, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, only publishes educational materials now. As educating as Robinson For The Defence was, it was highly entertaining. Larry Robinson is a great storyteller, and his experiences, while incredible, are told with a sense of humility and a sense of humor. Robinson For The Defence is one of the best autobiographies I have read by any hockey player and, like Robinson's play, it stands out as being excellent.

Because of his fantastic stories and the way he told them, I highly recommend Robinson For The Defence if you can find a copy. Larry Robinson talks openly and honestly about coaches, management, teams, Stanley Cup runs, and everything else in his personal life, earning Robinson For The Defence the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval! If you can find this book at your local library, it's not to be missed!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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