Monday, November 19, 2007

Robinson's Final Days In Montreal Remembered

There has always been much speculation as to how and why Larry Robinson left the Montreal Canadiens for the Los Angeles Kings after the 1989 season. Tied to that speculation were stories of a feud between himself and then Habs GM Serge Savard.

Robinson published an autobiography titled "Robinson For The Defense" ( co - authored by the same Chrys Goyens of the excellent "Lions In Winter") upon leaving Montreal at that time. The final dozen pages of the last chapter detail negotiations ( or lack thereof) between Robinson's agent Don Cape and Savard that led to Robinson moving on. In it, are references to a reason perhaps, why it took until now for Robinson's sweater to be retired.

Savard is unlikely to ever publish his own autobiography - like many former Canadiens GM's - so Robinson's side of the story has mostly gone uncontested. Like Guy Lafleur's final days during the same regime, this tale reads like one that should not have ended in such a twisted manner.

What is transcribed below, is but one section of a very interesting book. I urge all readers to seek it out wherever possible.

Pages 332-337

"Larry, you have to consider this your last NHL contract as a player" Don began.

"You have to approach this one differently. Now you have to think about how many years you want to play, and are capable of playing. And you also have to think about what happens after your career."

We talked for hours, and Jeanette was included in all the discussions. In many ways it was like our conversations 18 years before, just prior to Claude Ruel's visit to Winchester, Ontario, to negotiate my very first contract.

The consensus was I wanted to stay in Montreal because I was extremely happy with surroundings, the people, and the career I had built over 18 years. In short, I was happy, and so was Jeanette.

Donny Cape arranged an appointment with Serge Savard. They were going to meet at 4 p.m. on January 11, a day after the New Jersey Devils were visiting, to discuss my contract, and after the game Donny and I would get together and see what we had. Shortly thereafter, we would sign the contract. We wanted a year with an option. We didn't even want to make an issue of more money because we were comfortable with what we had. If Serge wanted to offer a raise, he wouldn't get an argument....but increased salary was not an issue.

On the morning of January 11, Don called Serge's office to reconfirm the afternoon appointment.
Donna Stewart, Serge's secretary, told him: "Serge wants to talk to you."

Savard came on the line.

"How are you, Serge?"

"Fine, Donny. What's this meeting about anyway?"

That question threw Donny a bit. "You know, Larry's contract. He's ready to sign for another year."

"Oh. No, I'm not interested in signing anything."

"What do you mean you're not interested." Donny was genuinely surprised.

"No, you didn't want to sign when Perron was the coach before. Why should you want to sign now? Wait to the end of the year."

"Larry wants to sign now because he is extremely happy with Pat Burns and he think he'll enjoy playing for him for a couple more years."

"I want to see what's going to be with Larry at the end of the year." Savard wasn't budging.

"Serge, you're going to end up in this double eagle business of forcing yourself to give Larry a 15% raise in salary once his option is over. You're costing yourself money because he'll sign for you right now for the same salary."

"I'll worry about that when the time comes," Savard replied. "I don't want to speak to you regarding Larry's contract until the end of the season. I don't like to disturb a player during the season. I don't want to bother Larry, he's going very well right now."

"Okay," Donny agreed. Salary never came up again until after the year was over.

NHL compensation rules stipulate that the team of a player who has played out his option has first crack at him after that season. To maintain this exclusivity, they must offer him a contract before June 30. On July 1, any other team in the league may offer him a deal and his former team still has 30 days to match the offer. If they choose not to, or he decides the other offer is better, he is then free to move to the other team. The new team might still have to compensate his former team, under a formula approved by the league and the players association.

This is what the NHL considers free agency. Only an idiot would actually think players are free to move to the highest bidders. This system discourages player movement. The league reasoning is: "How are you going to keep them in Winnipeg if they're all free to go to New York City?"

Anyway, the season and playoffs came and went, and then it was time for Serge Savard to resume serious bargaining. I was predisposed to staying with the Canadiens and I didn't want more money. I wanted a year and an option year. No more, no less.

On July 1, Don received a fax from Savard's office that said the Canadiens would exercise their right of refusal to match any offer over the next 30 days. They were offering me what they considered a 15% increase on the NHL part of my contract. (My previous agreement had been a two part deal: I was paid so much by the Montreal Canadiens and another amount by Molson's, the team owners, for publicity work and the like. The 15% was only being offered on the Canadiens part of the contract. It could be said the Canadiens were offering me a 15 % raise, but they weren't. The Molson money was a deferred payment plan.)

This wasn't an offer. Montreal was saying that if anybody saw fit to offer me something, then they might show interest. That "compliment" left me very much out in the cold.

Donny and I got together right away.

"We can't leave it at this," he said. "There's no offer from Montreal and other teams are going to want to know what the ball park is before they play. They're also going to want to know what Serge intends to do about compensation." Donny already had had preliminary talks with Detroit, Boston, and Los Angeles. Jimmy Devellano was interested, but less than before because he had just signed Borje Salming. Harry Sinden expressed serious interest, but his main worry was the compensation factor. Los Angeles had said they were interested but little else.

Donny called Serge Savard.

"Serge, there's something wrong here."

"Not at all, Donny," Savard replied. "That's just to cover my compensation."

"Are you going to do better than that?" We had to know what the ground rules were.

"Wait a week or two. I'm on vacation and we'll get together around the 20th of the month."
"Look, we can't wait. Larry wants to know what he's going to be doing this winter. Let's get this done."

"Okay, we'll get together within a week or so, when I get back."

True to his agenda, Donny called Serge back around the 10th of July. In the interim, Los Angeles had expressed some serious interest.

We had two demands. A 15 % increase on the full salary, which includes the deferred Molson payments, and a year and an option year on the contract duration.

The answers were "No", and "No."

Donny then remembered a promise Serge had made to me in January 1983, when the Canadiens dream team had been announced. That night, taking note that all the members of the team voted by the fans had had their sweaters retired (Doug Harvey was just about to have his famous No. 2 ceremoniously put away) Serge had turned to me and said, "Your sweater will be retired when you go."

I still wanted to stay in Montreal and Donny knew that this special reward or recognition was important to me.

"Are you still going to retire the sweater?"

Serge indicated that was unlikely.

Each active player gets two seasons tickets for his use. Would Savard consider transferring these to our company name and, once I had retired, allow me to purchase them?


Donny got exasperated at this point: "Serge, you don't seem to be very flexible."

Serge said that he didn't feel anybody was going to be interested in Larry Robinson, because if he stayed he was going to give him one year's salary for playing, and one year's salary for compensation, for the 18 years of service to the Canadiens. This latter item was a Canadiens policy. Players who had played 10 or more years for Montreal would receive a full year's pay upon their retirement.

Now that "automatic" compensation seemed to become a bargaining chip.

"I don't think anyone is going to match that," Savard said.

"Maybe not, but the point is you're not going to let Larry play the extra year, " Donny declared.

"That's right."

"Nor will you let him play anywhere else." Donny wasn't happy. "I think that after 17 years with the team, he should be entitled to determine his own future. He always gave the Canadiens 110 %."

Serge went on to intimate that if I went to another team, compensation would be unlikely. In Serge's mind, that bonus of a year's salary had strings attached to it.

Donny gave it one last shot. "Serge, are any of these area's negotiable?"

The reply was in the negative.

Shortly thereafter, Serge let his media friends know that I had demanded to have my sweater retired and demanded season tickets and his attitude was that I was being totally unreasonable. That upset me, especially when Jean Beliveau indignantly remarked that "nobody negotiates getting his sweater retired. It's not something that you can demand."

We didn't, but it suited Serge's purposes to spread that message about. Needless to say, I was steaming.

Whether or not Serge realized it, in my mind i had ceased being a Montreal Canadien that day. Some sort of invisible line had been crossed, or invisible door had been slammed. Never in all my years of playing for this organization had I ever thought it might end this way. Nobody is indispensible. After all, Wayne Gretzky was traded and I had always known that could happen to me.

But to leave the Canadiens through lack of interest, almost by default, was very hard to take. I thought the club and I owed each other more than that.

Page 341-342

A couple of weeks have passed since I signed the new agreement and left the Montreal Canadiens, I've read a few letters to the editor in Montreal that complained about greedy hockey players and how we have loyalty only to the Big Buck and not to the team that has nurtured us and enabled us to grow over our careers. My answer to these criticisms is simple: I wanted to remain with the Canadiens, but others chose another path for me.

The Canadiens will be very different next year, what with Rick Green retiring and Bob Gainey playing and coaching in France. I'll miss my teammates and Pat Burns but I wish them all the best, especially Pat Burns, who will be a terrific coach for a long time, if they let him.

As for the longevity in one uniform, the 1988-89 season proved most clearly that you can come back with another team, especially when the Rangers came to town and Guy Lafleur and Chris Nilan were in Broadway Blue. I can remember all sorts of all stars and Montreal fixtures going to other teams - Butch Bouchard with Washington, Brian Engblom and Rod Langway with Washington, Serge Savard with Winnipeg and Guy Lapointe with St. Louis and Boston, to name a few.

The all time Canadiens team I was voted to now has only two players on it who wore the bleu - blanc - rouge for their entire NHL careers - Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau.

One day, several years down the road, I'll come back to the Forum and the veteran's room, with the other "anciens", and we'll have a meal, drink some Molson's, and tell a few lies. The Flower, Shutty, big Yvon Lambert, the Roadrunner, Coco, Pointu, Ken Dryden, Bo, the Dougies, Murray, Bleuet, Charty, Bunny and the rest.

Bob gainey will probably be General Manager of some NHL team by then, and Doug Risebrough will be vice president of the Calgary Flames, if the Flames are as smart as I think they are. Serge will probably be President of the Canadiens by then, too.

But on that occasion, we'll all be Montreal Canadiens, the team that swept four Stanley Cups in a row between '76 and '79. Some time, after two or three beers, we'll convince ourselves that it "shoulda been eight in a row."

Robert L Note: On Friday, I wrote about my Robinson memories, and Habster at All Habs compliments this post nicely with video additions to the highlights mentioned in my piece. An excellent read on Larry, entitled "Marvel From Marvelville Finally Gets His Day In Montreal" was in last Thursday's Ottawa Citizen. Joe Pelletier begins his Robinson tribute this way: "If you had to build your team's blue line around your choice of one defenseman in NHL history, you certainly couldn't go wrong selecting Larry Robinson." You can't go wrong reading any of Joe's 500 plus bio's either. The Hockey Hall Of Fame website offers four interesting Robinson profiles - there is a 1 on 1 interview, his biography page, a pinnacle moment feature, and a treasure chest piece with some interesting Robinson memorabilia. Check them all out.

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