On Monday night, Larry Robinson will receive the ultimate honor that the Montreal Canadiens provide; the retirement of his jersey number by the team. In ceremonies before Montreal’s game with the Ottawa Senators, Robinson will become the thirteenth player to have his number retired by the team. Like all of the ceremonies held previously, it will be a touching, emotional night for one of the greatest legends in the storied history of the Montreal Canadiens.
The only question is; what took so long?
It has been eighteen and a half years ago since Larry Robinson played his last game with the Canadiens. After retiring from the NHL at the conclusion of the 1992 season, Robinson took his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995. And while no player has worn the number nineteen since he left the Canadiens, the question remains; why did this take so long?
Unfortunately, Robinson wasn’t alone amongst Canadiens legends in waiting for this honor. While Morenz, Beliveau, Lafleur, and the Richards all had their numbers retired in short order after their playing days with the Habs came to an end, others have had long waits.
Jacques Plante – thirty-two years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Doug Harvey – twenty-four years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Bernard Geoffrion – forty-two years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Dickie Moore – forty-two years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Yvan Cournoyer – twenty-six years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Serge Savard – twenty-five years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
Ken Dryden – twenty-eight years after he played his last game with the Canadiens
To have your number retired by the Montreal Canadiens is one of the ultimate honors one can achieve in hockey. It isn’t exactly like getting your number retired by the Florida Panthers. In order to get your number retired by the Canadiens you have to be considered one of the defining players in team history; no easy task.
Obviously, Larry Robinson is one of these players. So why did this take so long?
There are two answers to the question, both of which don’t necessarily justify the wait, but in some ways explain it.
The first reason lies in the occupancy of Ronald Corey as the Canadiens team president. The judgment of history will not be kind to Corey’s reign over the team, despite the Canadiens winning two Stanley Cups during his tenure. One of the bright spots during Corey’s time with the Canadiens was his campaigning to have the Canadiens recognize their past. The opening of a lounge in the arena for retired players, the various on ice ceremonies honoring the 1950’s Habs, the Canadiens 75th anniversary team, and of course the closing ceremonies for the Forum. If he accomplished nothing else, Corey was able to bring back the history and the tradition of the Canadiens and help restore some of the mystique to the team at a time when it was sorely needed.
But surprisingly, the one area that Corey didn’t recognize fully was the retirement of the numbers of those deserving. During his seventeen years as the team’s president, only two players had their numbers retired by the team; Jacques Plante and Doug Harvey.
The effect that this had on Robinson’s number being retired by the Canadiens was twofold. Firstly, the rarity of having your number retired didn’t help Robinson’s cause and secondly, Robinson got pushed to the end of the line of deserving candidates who starred for the team before he did. Names like Geoffrion, Cournoyer, Dryden, and Serge Savard.
And Serge Savard helps explain the second reason that Robinson has had to wait so long for his day. In the closing days of his career with the Canadiens it was widely reported that Robinson had demanded that the team retire his number.
This led to a rare reprimand from the forever elegant and classy; Jean Beliveau.
“Nobody negotiates getting his sweater retired,” explained Beliveau. “It’s not something you can demand.”
The effect of this entire episode was especially damaging to the reputation of Larry Robinson. As an example, my father, forever a Habs fan, was permanently turned off by Robinson, and carries a bitterness towards him to this day. To this day, he still has serious reservations about Robinson’s number being raised to the rafters. Not because of his playing career, but because he demanded that his number be retired.
In his autobiography, “Robinson for the Defence,” Robinson explained his side of the story, a story that was not the same as had been reported in the press.
Robinson claimed that he wanted to continue playing for the Canadiens after the 1989 season. He goes on to claim that contract negotiations with Serge Savard, the Habs general manager at the time, were almost non-existent. In his eyes, the Habs felt that his playing career was finished. Furthermore, Robinson claimed that Savard reneged on a long standing Canadiens tradition of giving him his one year’s salary in his first year of retirement.
Robinson also claimed in his book that Savard had promised him (in January of 1983, when the all-time Habs team was named) that his number “would be retired when you go.” As negotiations between the two we’re going nowhere in the summer of 1989, Robinson says that he reminded Savard of this promise. Savard told Robinson that the team had no immediate plans for such an occasion.
Where the truth lies is unknown but the end result of all this was Robinson’s bitter departure from the Canadiens and his move to Los Angeles to play the final three season’s of his career with Wayne Gretzky and the Kings.
In some ways the bitterness has remained over the ensuing years.
In the closing ceremonies for the Forum, Robinson was a notable no-show.
In an interview with Robinson published in the Montreal Gazette in November 18th, 2005, a wistful man reflected on the future and a potential ceremony.
“So much has been said and written about this … you know what? When it does happen, it’s almost going to be anticlimactic for me.”
“The glitter has sort of been taken off it because I’d have loved to have my parents enjoy the ceremony (both have passed away). But they’re not here, and neither is Brian (Robinson’s brother, who passed away from cancer in 2004).
“That’s what this is all about. It’s not about yourself; it’s for your family and everyone else.”
On Monday night none of this will matter as Larry Robinson takes his rightful place amongst the other Canadiens legends, high in the rafters of the Bell Centre. Better late than never.