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At 39, Kings' Robinson Gives It Another Ride : Hockey: Defenseman doesn't want to end career with memories of last season's frustration.

September 11, 1990|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HULL, Canada — As the days of summer dwindled to a few, Larry Robinson, veteran of 18 NHL seasons, grew eager to play.

Couldn't wait to get back to hockey?

Uh, not exactly.

Would you believe polo?

At 39, Robinson was weighing the agony of his most frustrating year in hockey, against the ecstasy of his best year in polo.

And thinking what once seemed unthinkable.

"I've been asking myself a lot during the summer, 'Should I hang it up now, or shouldn't I?' " Robinson said.

"Problem is, I've still got to pay for those ponies."

Good point. Polo is still just a hobby for Robinson, one that costs him $15,000-$20,000 a year. Hockey, on the other hand, is his high-paying occupation. Robinson is in the second season of a three-year, $1.65-million deal with the Kings.

But that's not the only reason he finally decided to put down his mallet, pick up his hockey stick and join his teammates here in training camp.

He also didn't want to skate away from the game with last season his final memory.

In his 17 years with the Montreal Canadians, Robinson became one of the top defensemen in NHL history. A two-time winner of the Norris Trophy, given to the league's best defenseman, holder of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1978, and a six-time all-star, Robinson played on six Stanley Cup champions in Montreal.

But at times last season, one might have thought he had never even played in the NHL.

Trying to impress in his first year in Los Angeles, Robinson wound up pressing. He tried to do more than his 38-year-old legs would permit in a division much faster than he was accustomed to.

He committed a rash of turnovers, several times in crucial situations.

There were whispers that he had left his game in Montreal, that he was going to quit, that he \o7 should \f7 quit.

His confidence disappeared. He acknowledged that he reached the point where his only desire was to get off the ice before the other team scored, hardly a great frame of mind for a defenseman.

"I think I was my own worst enemy," Robinson said. "Maybe I panicked a little bit and tried to do too much. As a result, everybody suffered. This is still a team sport. You just can't go out there and expect to carry it all on your shoulders. Even Wayne (Gretzky) can't expect to go out and carry this team on his shoulders. You just don't win hockey games like that."

Robinson's problems weren't eased by his having to adjust to a new environment after 17 years.

"Having never played on another club, I didn't know about the pressure of changing cities and having your family change," Robinson said. "I think everything built up and hit all at once.

"You're playing in a different system with different guys. In this game, when you make a decision, it has to be made so quickly. But these aren't the same people you're used to playing with. They don't do the same things. So that fraction of a second wasn't there. When I got myself into a jam, I had to think my way out of it. As soon as you start that, it's too late."

But it wasn't too late for Robinson, thanks to an old opponent.

When Robinson scored his first NHL goal 17 years ago, it was against a King goalie named Rogie Vachon.

Vachon is now the team's general manager. It was he who had signed Robinson to a King contract, and it was he who pulled him aside last February for a pep talk.

Vachon's message was all the more effective because it was rooted in personal experience. Vachon, too, had been an NHL star, playing in goal for 16 years. But he also wound up losing the mind game.

The situation was similar to Robinson's. After a seven-year, all-star career with the Kings, Vachon left to sign a lucrative deal with the Detroit Red Wings.

"When you start making big money, compared to what you made before, you feel like you have to do more," Vachon said. "And that's where you start getting yourself in trouble.

"You start putting pressure on yourself. You're so tight, you can't handle the puck. When you think like this, you just can't perform. When things are going well, you say, 'Come on. Give me the puck. I'll stop everything.' But, if you're not confident, you'll say, 'Geez, I hope my defense can put a stick in front of that puck.' Big change.

"I went through that. I tried self-hypnosis. I tried all kinds of stuff. It was unbearable."

Nothing worked for Vachon until, after two frustrating seasons, he finally asked to be traded. The Red Wings granted his wish, sending him to the Boston Bruins.

"Then I started to relax a bit," he said.

Hearing that story, Robinson relaxed a bit.

Even so, things got worse before they got better. Robinson's mental slump was compounded by physical problems. Food poisoning weakened him late in the regular season, and he also suffered a groin pull.

Finally, in the playoffs, with Tom Laidlaw sidelined because of an injury and several other defensemen hurting, Robinson skated to the forefront, displaying leadership and playing with the confidence and skill Vachon had envisioned when he signed him.

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