Transcribed from Bertrand Raymond's Le Journal de Montreal column
, November 20, 2007
Former Canadiens coach, scout, and man for all purposes Claude Ruel was absent from the Bell Centre Monday night, when one of his most gifted students witness the raising of his sweater to the rafters.
His name on the guest list but his health fragile, he preferred to remain home, glued to the televison when he heard the celebrated Robinson thank him for having supported him so well.
"I tire easily these days", Ruel explained, "I must avoid stressful situations."
Robinson was part of a group known in the day as "Piton's boys." It was he who spend the summer months grooming them into players, as he's done also after practices during the season.
"Skate, skate, skate", the round bellied teacher would endlessly holler. And skate alot they did - until their tongues were dragging - but Ruel made them all better players.
"I'm happy for Larry, for worked extremely hard to become the type of athlete he is", says Ruel. "You could place all your confidence in him at any time and in any situation."
Ruel recall one particular night on Long Island, when he asked Robinson to play right wing along side Gainey and Jarvis, to help counter the explosive Trottier, Bossy, and Gillies line.
"He played an awesome game and we won 3-1. He was always a player who wanted to do more. A coach is priveledged to have players of his stripe."
Robinson was drafted in 1971, when the NHL was a 14 team league. He was taken in the second round, 20th overall. That year, the Canadiens had three first round picks, and used them to select Guy Lafleur (1), Chuck Arnason (7), and Murray Wilson (11).
When Ruel presented the list from his scouting reports to Sam Pollock before the draft, he made a point to mention a player whom he felt worthy of choosing in the top 20. He asked Pollock permission to run the risk in his case.
"It's you who is in charge", the GM replied.
"Okay, then I'm going for it", said Ruel.
"I can say today, that I am the one who discovered Larry", Ruel confirmed. I was at a game between Kitchener Rangers and Toronto Marlies, I watched this big fellow who skated well and who played a hell of a game, offensively and defensively."
Ruel admits sweating bullets at the draft table that day, for fear Robinson would be scooped up by another organization.
"When Buffalo chose Craig Ramsay 19th, it was as if a ton of weight came off my shoulders. We all have our own faith. "God sure liked me that day!"
However, there were many who were baffled by Ruel's take on Robinson.
"I make no hesitation in saying that I was putting alot on the line for him. The same goes for Dryden and Gainey."
Two years later, with the Canadiens 8th choice overall, Pollock asked Ruel who he had his eyes on.
"There's this kid I've seen in Peterborough..."
For Pollock and several of the Canadiens scouts, Gainey was a complete unknown.
"Sam looked at me with a crooked smile - as if to say "Are you smashed?", recounts Ruel.
Ruel firmly believes these players for whom he battled for became greats because of the sizes of their hearts.
"Larry was exactly the same as Serge Savard", Ruel pointed out, "When you told them what was expected of them, you had no worries. You knew you were going to get it."
Ruel emphasizes that what makes the player, as in Robinson's case, has much to do with the man he is off ice.
"I didn't hang with players when work was done. I've no way of knowing what they are like away from the game, but I am convinced that Larry was a great father. The guy always had a good head on his shoulders."
Being invited to the ceremonies profoundly touched Ruel. Away from the game, and in quiet retreat, the 69 year old retiree is quite happy to realize he has not been forgotten.
"I'm happy he remembered me", Ruel said, his voice failing him slightly, "I gather it has all to do with the amount of time we spent together.
I wouldn't be at all surprised if this man, who has devoted his life's work to his "boys", shed a few tears Monday night.