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Robinson Grooming His Successors : Canadien Veteran, 34, in Twilight of Career, Is Teacher

October 13, 1985|United Press International

MONTREAL — The short sandy hair has begun to gray at the temples, but Larry Robinson either hasn't noticed or has chosen to ignore his geriatric trappings.

Instead, he is living up to his sobriquet of "Big Bird" as he grimaces, contorts his wrist and fingers like a gnarled oak, and says in his best nasal granny twang: "You've been bad boys. Go stand in the corner."

His pupils in their bright orange or green Montreal Canadiens practice sweaters guffaw, squirt the water bottle and shovel ice shavings at their mentor.

Robinson, 34, enters his 13th National Hockey League season as much more than just another hockey great in the twilight of an All-Star career.

The last of the so-called "Big Three" defense of the Canadiens' Stanley Cup glory years of the 1970s -- Robinson, current Canadiens GM Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe -- has been entrusted with passing the torch on to the new "Big Three" - defensemen Chris Chelios, Tom Kurvers and Petr Svoboda.

Everyone connected with the Canadiens, from the stick boy up to club president Ronald Corey, knows the Canadiens' strategy for bringing the Stanley Cup back to Montreal.

Nobody is likely to "out-offense" the champion Edmonton Oilers in the foreseeable future. So the Canadiens plan to add more offensive punch at the forward positions and combine that with big-stop goaltending and the best defense in the league.

Quebec Nordiques coach Michel Bergeron says the Canadiens already possess the best defense in the NHL. Chelios, Kurvers, Svoboda and Robinson are buttressed by solid defensemen Rick Green and Craig Ludvig. Three promising rookies are fighting for one backup spot.

The frightening part for their opponents is that, aside from Robinson, most of them have barely outgrown double-bladed baby skates.

Svoboda, only 19, is still filling out his 6-foot, 1-inch frame. Former coach Jacques Lemaire, who now serves as GM Savard's assistant, says he has the greatest potential. The Czech defector is considered the best skater of the three young defensemen and is an excellent stickhandler.

Chelios, the 1985 runner-up for NHL Rookie of the Year who played for the United States Olympic team, is considered the most advanced of the three at age 23. The Chicago native is an excellent rushing defenseman with a wicked slap shot and exceptional puck control.

Kurvers, who turns 23 on Oct. 14, played his college hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, three hours north of his Minneapolis home.

He is also considered a fine skater and good stickhandler, but plays a more conservative style as Chelios' defense partner. Lemaire has said the 6-foot, 190-pound Kurvers is physically the strongest of his three young star rearguards.

They don't have the Stanley Cup rings or All-Star team berths that Savard, Robinson and Lapointe won, but it is only a question of time.

Robinson, the two-time Norris Trophy winner as the league's best defenseman and five-time All-Star who plays the role of teacher, protector and pal, says his young charges are the "Big Three" right now.

"They're as good as we ever were, but in different times," Robinson said. "In the 1970s, it was a more defensive style of play. But they're similar to us in that they don't just dump the puck out. They like to carry it and make the pass."

Robinson says the trio could begin hitting their stride this campaign after a full season together last year. Their regular-season scoring statistics last year outdid most of the Canadiens' forward lines -- Chelios had 64 points, Kurvers 45 and Svoboda 31. Robinson had 47 points.

But veteran Canadiens forward Mario Tremblay says it is premature to call Chelios, Kurvers and Svoboda the "Big Three" yet.

"They're developing well, but Robinson, Lapointe and Savard were unbelievable," Tremblay said prior to the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

"Chelios is very good offensively. The way he rushes with the puck reminds me of Lapointe. Kurvers is also a good, young talent. But you can't compare Petr to Savard yet. He's good and will get better. But first, he has to go to school."

The three are "two or three years" away from hitting their peaks, Tremblay predicted.

"Larry is still the leader of the defense," Tremblay said. "He can still play like an NHL All-Star and show our young defensemen lots of tricks."

Chelios, who underwent surgery for torn knee ligaments in the off-season, says the trio is aware of the club's high expectations for them.

"Larry quarterbacks and teaches us," Chelios said in a recent interview. "We know the club expects us to develop into the top defensemen in the league. We have the tools to do that. It's a matter of executing.

"All the talk around here is about bringing the Stanley Cup home. We have to go out and prove we can do it."

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