Talks to Peter Collins March 2000
HOCKEY players,like any other professional sportsmen, can sometimes let their egos get in the way of everything else. But not Rob Robinson.
Giving new meaning to the term laid-back, this fiercely proud and protective family man has an outlook on life than is as simple as it is refreshing. There are no airs and graces where 'Robbo' is concerned, simply a self-deprecating sense of humour along with the ability to come up with a cutting one-liner, life is for living according to Robbo.
Big - he stands 6ft 3in and weighs in at 15 1/2 stone, although anybody seeing the mural on the side of the Arndale Centre on Corporation Street depicting Rob and Mike Morin would think he was at least three times that size - and known as the 'Demolition Man' at the Storm Shelter, Rob has nevertheless refused to become one of the games' enforcers, preferring instead to be known as a blueliner who simply does his job well, but tough.
"I lost my brother Jimmy to cancer when I was 11-years-old and I think that moulded me more than anything else into the person I am. It made me realise that certain things are more important than others. Yes hockey is how I earn my living and I give it everthing I've got every game, but it's still a game. If I'd been a fighter I may have played in the NHL longer than I did, it would certainly have helped, but five or six years into my career I decided I didn't want to be that kind of player, so maybe I brought things on myself, but I've never had a problem with the way I play the game. I play hard but fair, if a hit's there to be made I'll make it, if I have to block a shot I'll block it. Hockey's a game and if I wanted to fight I'd have been a boxer. Fighting is a great tool for some guys to get the extra year or two to play, and there's a place for a fighter on a team, but it's not my way."
Being the son of an NHL pro It's no surprise Rob followed his dad into the game, although they are totally different players.
Doug Robinson was a 7-year NHL veteran who played 250 games all-told, producng 48+70 for 118 points for three teams - the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and LA Kings. His career was ended when he took a stick in the eye playing for the Montreal Canadiens farm team, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in the AHL. Since then he's been a scout for the Habs. "He's been with Montreal 27-28 years now and that's why they're my team, I grew up cheering for them, they put the food on the table and I loved to watch them and still do," explained Rob.
"Dad's the same size as me but there's a big difference - he was a left winger who could score. I was a centre iceman until I was 15-16 years old. I was much bigger than everyobody and it allowed me to score goals but everyone kind of caught up with me size-wise and my skills didn't exactly improve, so moving back into defence was a move made out of necessity. One year we had an injury and I was put back on defence for half a year and I got to where I was worrying more about being the first guy back-checking than the first guy to score, so It was a natural progression - only backwards."
When you consider his dad's career was ended by a facial injury, and Rob himself was sporting some tasty looking scars when we talked, he nevertheless declines to wear a face shield, even though he is renowned for throwing himself in front of the puck whenever the opposition is firing shots in on the Storm goal.
"When I first turned pro my mom kind of suggested I wear a visor, as mothers do, but I have this philosophy that if you wear a visor the sticks come up more. When I was at college I wore a full facemask and everbody was tough, you know what I mean? College hockey is far dirtier than pro hockey because of the full face masks. I did think about wearing one briefly but it's not easy to see through. I got a puck in the eye myself once and I wore one for a while but took it off once things went back to normal, you have to constantly wipe the sweat off them. Pierre Allard has wore one forever but when he went playing for France recently he didn't have one and now he's found he sees things much better without one. As for blocking shots, for obvious reasons I try and pick the right spot on my body to take the hit, as I've got older I've got better at it, I've improved my timing."
Rob, who'll be 34 in April, played for his home town team, St Catherines, Ontario, before going on to play four years for Miami University (Ohio) in the NCAA. There he gained a Physical Education degree and also met his wife Kelly, mother of his three daughters Emily, Meaghan and Abby. And home for the Robinsons now is Cleveland, Ohio.
While at University he was drafted in his second year by the St Louis Blues (6th round, 117th overall in 1987) and after four years at college joined the Blues' farm team the Peoria Rivermen, who were then in the IHL. In his seocnd year with them he won the Turner Cup.
He spent the first six months of following season with the Blues, playing 22 regular season games, (1 assist, 8 PIMS) before being traded to Tampa Bay Lightning and re-joining Peoria. The following season was spent with the Kalamazoo Wings and then he moved on to the Houston Aeros, where things took a turn for the worse.
"I'd played 70 games for Houston on three 25-game try-out contracts, which meant they could cut me at any time, and then during the summer I couldn't get a job. I had a try-out in Cincinatti that didn't amount to anything and the only offer on the table was from Peoria to be a scout. I was ticked off, I'd been a pro seven years yet couldn't get a contract at the level I knew I could play at (IHL), so I figured I'd take the scouting job. But by the December I couldn't sleep at night because I wasn't playing, I was only 28! So January 1996 I made a call to a guy my dad had played with, Bill Inglis, who was general manager at Kalamazoo, and asked if he knew of any team looking for players and he called me back and told me Syracuse, Vancouver's farm team were looking. I called them on the Wednesday night and was playing for them on the Friday! I hadn't skated in two months but if you play my style, where you don't go too far from your own net, you can get through things like that. The team had a .500 year and did much better than everyone thought it would but by the end of May they still hadn't asked me back, so I had a buddy who'd played in Austria for a couple of years and he told me I'd get a job no problem, so I jumped at the opportunity. I knew I was going out there in June so I knew I wouldn't have to worry about a job for another year."
So the summer of 1996 the Robinsons headed for Europe and VEU Feldkirch where Rob was part of team that won both the Austrian and Alpenliga titles (the following year Feldkirch won the first ever EHL competition). He then moved to the DEL and the Frankfurt Lions - where he was a teammate of Kelly Askew - but after a season with the German team he was only offered another one-year deal to return, so he decided to take up the two-year option on offer from the Storm, and he'll be back for a third term next season.
"This is the first year since we''ve been married that we've been back in the same spot. The reason I came here was because of the security a two-year contract offered, not because it was better money or better hockey, it was just better for my family. I'd put them through too many years of not knowing what was around the corner. The year I played for Syracuse we'd just bought our house in Cleveland and then I didn't see it for five months. We had a two-year-old and a newborn and my wife saw me three times in five months, I've still not recovered from that. If I was smart I would have been done playing hockey a long time ago, but I enjoy playing too much.
"I've had to accept less money to come back this year but we had the chance to know where we would be and we've experienced enough uncertainty over the years for that to make a difference , and I also got another year - next year- for taking less. So maybe overall I'm better off because I know I have a job for next year here too."
After winning a Superleague championship ring last season, Rob admits that this campaign hasn't exactly gone to plan.
"The changes were the thing, whereas last season everything went right from the start this year we started well, had a tough, tough patch in the middle and suffered from injuries. But since New Years we've been the best team, we've never thrown in the towel. We never got back to first spot - Bracknell deserved it, they played well all year - but we've continued to work hard and we've turned things around. Changes in personnel are just the nature of the beast back home, guys get called up, guys get sent down and quite often you don't have the same team night in night out. Here in Europe it doesn't happen quite so much. In fact it's one of the thing that steers guys over here, after a while they've had enough of not knowing where they're going to be, plus the travelling and scheduling is much easier and consequently you get to spend more time with your kids.
"Last year was a special year and in a way we were very similar to the two winning teams I've been on before - Peoria and Feldkirch. We had had strong regular seasons, kind of 'what's- meant-to-be' scearios. You can usually tell by the way the bounces go that it 's going to be your year, plus we stayed clear of injuries. With Peoria we set a league record of 18 wins in a row, we were first from day one, the same in Austria, and last year with Manchester we expected to win every game. The difference this year has been that we could play well and still lose."
And so to the play offs and although Rob realises Storm are much fancied he also accepts that it's not going to be easy, a fact not helped by the way the post season competition is organised.
"Yes we're one of the favourites to make the play-off finals, but Sheffield are always dangerous with the number of goals they can score, and we all know how tough Cardiff and Ayr can be. I prefer the way the play-offs are set-up this year compared to last year. We play all six games over two weeks whereas they were spread out over three weeks last year which doesn't help to build up the imtensity. But one-off games leave far too much to fate and chance for my liking, compared to a best of 5 or 7 where the best team usually wins out, over here the best team doesn't always win. If we get to the finals we'll have benefitted from winning the B&H and the way we handled the pressure of that competition."
Surprisingly - although not so once you get to know the man - when Rob looks back on his career it's not playing in 'the show' that stands out for him.
"It's neat to be able to say that I played at that level, but winning the Turner Cup, the Austrian championship, Superleague last year and the B&H this year with Manchester, those mean more to me because I was much more a part of those things than being a part of St Louis."
And when his playing days are over what then? A keen, almost obsessive golfer Rob, however, rules out a new sporting career: "No I certainly won't be a Happy Gilmore, the only way I'll make the pro golf circuit is as a caddy. I've been thinking about life after hockey for a while now because it's getting much closer. I'd like to stay involved in the game - coaching, scouting, college, pro, broadcasting - it's just a matter of timing, so anyone reading this ask Pete for my number... "