Robinson returns to help team he loves
If the New Jersey Devils have a theme song, it might well be "Hotel California." You know the riff, you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.
Take Larry Robinson, longtime guest at the Hotel Devils.
If it seems as though the once and present New Jersey head coach never left, it's because he didn't. He simply shuffled from one part of the building to another, moving from light to shadow until finally coming full circle and returning as coach for the 2005-06 season.
"I wasn't really surprised. He stuck around for a reason. I think he believes in the organization," said netminder Martin Brodeur of Robinson's appointment as fill-in for the ailing Pat Burns.
"That just shows you the kind of person Larry is," added center Bobby Holik, who won a Cup with the Devils under Robinson in 2000 and is now a member of the Atlanta Thrashers. "He's just the greatest individual that I've ever met in hockey, either as a coach or as a human being. He loves the game and he loves the guys in New Jersey and he loves the organization."
Robinson illustrates a basic truth about the Devils: Whatever your impressions are of the team, they're probably wrong.
When they appeared to be just a one-trick pony responsible for the trap and a generation of boring hockey, they were regularly among the highest-scoring teams in the Eastern Conference. Now, when they appear to be going through a cataclysmic upheaval, they remain one of the most stable franchises in the league.
Yes, Scott Stevens retired and star defenseman Scott Niedermayer joined his brother Rob in Anaheim. But look around the dressing room and the core of the team remains homegrown and long-serving, starting with Brodeur and Sergei Brylin, the only other player to have been with all three Cup-winning Devils teams, and extending to a nucleus of players such as Patrik Elias, Brian Rafalski, John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, Colin White and Scott Gomez, who were part of Cup wins in 2000 and 2003.
Adding to the quirky symmetry that defines the Devils organization are Alexander Mogilny and Vladimir Malakhov. Both were part of the 2000 championship team; both have returned as free-agent signees in large part because the Devils have become synonymous with success and stability.
"It's a big family," said Brodeur, who has never worn another NHL jersey since arriving in 1993-94. "We don't change much. People think we do. But we don't."
And Robinson is an integral part of that stability.
"I never really left. I was just in a different capacity," Robinson said recently. "I was still helping on the ice in Albany. And whenever I was allowed to, I would come in and help here, as well. It's not like I left and went somewhere and didn't know what was going on at home.
"I kept in touch with everything that was going on. The only transition and the only change for me was getting back into the swing of things behind the bench because now you've got the hurry-up faceoff and again we talk about the rule changes and everything else."
Many in the hockey world view the Devils as an organizational oddity, a closed society, a world unto themselves, and Robinson's relationship with the team does little to dispel that notion. Normally when you get fired, you pack up, mutter curses under your breath and never look back. Robinson not only stayed after GM Lou Lamoriello fired him in early 2002, but immediately returned as an assistant coach, then stayed on as a consultant.
"How many guys would have, after they fired you, would have called you back up and said 'Listen, maybe it wasn't the right thing,'" Robinson asks, still shaking his head at the thought.
The 54-year-old began his coaching career as an assistant in New Jersey in 1993 after his 20-year Hall of Fame playing career ended.
After the Devils won their first of three championships in 1995, Robinson took a full-time coaching job in Los Angeles. The Kings made the playoffs just once in four years and Robinson might have left coaching altogether if not for Lamoriello, who brought him back as an assistant, then promoted him to head coach after firing Robinson's longtime friend Robbie Ftorek with eight games remaining in the 1999-2000 season.
(For the record, Ftorek remains with the organization as well, coaching the team's AHL affiliate in Albany.)
The Devils went on to win the Cup that spring and then went to the seventh game of the 2001 finals. But during the 2001-02 season, the Devils, fatigued and difficult to motivate, struggled and Lamoriello shocked the hockey world by firing Robinson on Jan. 28, 2002.
Again, the circumstances were much different from what appeared on the surface.
"He was more worried about me. He was worried as much about myself as he was the team," Robinson recalled. "I kind of wore this thing and took it all on top of my own shoulders, and it was starting to bother me. I was taking it home, and you can't let that happen.
"We both agreed it was the right thing to do," Robinson added. "Had we thought about it maybe longer [who knows]?"
The more Robinson tried to give his players room to right the ship, the worse it got.
"Sometimes we don't differentiate between kindness and weakness," Lamoriello said. "It was a very unfortunate situation."
Kevin Constantine came in, and the Devils were ousted in the first round of the 2002 playoffs. Burns followed, guiding the team to its third Cup win in 2003 while Robinson was acting as a consultant. When Burns left the team after the 2004 playoffs to concentrate on his battle with cancer, Robinson became the obvious choice and was named to the post in mid-July.
Some will view this as a sentimental hire. Or the safe hire. Or the convenient hire. Lamoriello views it as simply the right hire.
"We don't look back here. He is the best person for the job today," Lamoriello said. "We don't separate the professional end of our relationship and the personal end of it. We respect it."
When Robinson was fired, the feeling was that he'd become too much a friend and not enough of a drill sergeant. Now, Lamoriello figures Robinson has the perfect temperament for a new NHL landscape, where teams are going to have to stay on an even keel to succeed.
"Not to take anything away from Pat. But you couldn't go up to him and talk to him. You didn't know what he was thinking," Gomez said.
Robinson, by comparison, is more open. He will engage his players, take their suggestions under consideration. But he is no pushover, again a contradiction to the commonly held theory that Robinson is too nice a guy.
"He's one of the best ever. He knows who he is," Gomez said. "Everybody thinks Larry's just so nice. He's got a mean streak to him, and you've got to respect that. No one's going to take advantage of him."
During his three seasons in Toronto, Mogilny, the king of the understatement, occasionally would refer to Toronto coach Pat Quinn as a "nice old man." But the gifted Russian saves high praise for both Quinn and Robinson.
"They're guys that used to play the game. They can relate to the players, their ups and downs," Mogilny said. "Some coaches, they can become total idiots, you know. Guys like Larry, they just keep their cool. They understand that a couple of words or a tap on the shoulder is better than shouting."
As much as this is about a fresh start, a clean slate, for those who were on hand when Robinson was shown the door, the subject is almost always accompanied by a wince or a grimace that indicates the past might be gone but it's not forgotten.
"It's a nasty business, and this just proved it right there," said Gomez, who won a rookie of the year award and a Stanley Cup under Robinson but struggled after he departed.
"It had nothing to do with Larry," Holik said. "It was one of the saddest days when they decided to let him go. But they knew what they had when they brought him back."
"It's not that you owe the guy anything," Gomez added, although it's clear many players feel exactly that.
Robinson, for his part, is quick to dismiss any notion of a debt being owed, as though somehow success this season would be an atonement of some kind.
"It's not that I buy it or I don't. But they don't owe me anything. You can say what you want, but when I was here, the guys played hard. I have no problems with that. They all played hard."
Although he has been courted by a number of NHL teams, including the cross-river rival New York Rangers, Robinson has declined to go anywhere else. And if he had to think long and hard about returning to the team after being fired, he spent little time deciding he wanted to be back behind the bench this season.
"They've been terrific to me and my family, and this is where I want to be. I want to be a Devil," Robinson said.
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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