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King-Size Toll

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three times in his life, Larry Robinson has experienced trauma so severe that his body could not handle the stress and the skin on his hands peeled off.

The first time was after his first knee operation. The second was after his second knee operation. The third was last season, his first as coach of the Kings and the first, after a splendid 20-year playing career and two years as an assistant coach, a team he represented missed the playoffs.

“This is probably the roughest challenge he’s ever had in hockey,” said King assistant coach Jay Leach. “I’m sure there’s not a moment in the day he’s not thinking or worrying about this team. It’s tough for him because if you had seen him play, you know what a competitor he was and that he was awfully good at his job.”

Said Tom Reich, a friend and advisor, “I have seen [the strain]. It’s evident. Larry Robinson is a special breed of human being. He always performed at a very high level and he inspires others to perform at a high level. He’s not used to, nor will he accept, losing. Nor should he, or will he ever.”

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Robinson hasn’t lost any skin this season, so by that standard, the Kings have improved. But he has lost countless hours of sleep, fretting over the regeneration of a team that has gone from the Stanley Cup finals to near-oblivion in less than four years.

“Hockey is frustrating in that it’s not like something else, where if you have a broken car, you can go down and buy a bunch of parts and make it better,” he said. “This is not a question of just going out and buying parts. It’s a long process.

“Look at football, at the [Super Bowl champion] Green Bay Packers. It took them five years to get where they are. Right now, we’re not even a full year into revamping our club. It’s not a question where we really have to be frustrated right now. We could see this coming.”

Seeing it coming is one thing. Getting his players going is another.

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He has repeatedly threatened them with demotions or benchings, only to find he had to back off.

“It’s not like you don’t want to do it, it’s because you can’t,” he said. “Your hands are tied. We [as players] lived in fear of being sent to the minors, and now you can’t be in fear of that because a lot of times, players have to pass through waivers in order to do that. You have to motivate them in other ways.

“I think the big difference is today’s athlete is so much different than when I was playing. You wonder what they’re thinking about sometimes.

“When I played, you played hard because you were in fear of losing your job, and I don’t think guys play with that same fear today because of long-term contracts and the size of the contracts. A lot of kids, if they’re smart, play three or four years and can be financially stable for the rest of their lives.”

Players don’t see his failure to carry out his threats as indecisiveness.

“When he says he’s had enough and can’t take something anymore, it means he’s not satisfied to be 19-31,” center Ray Ferraro said. “He knows we have a young team and that we’re going to make mistakes, but he won’t tolerate a lack of effort, and I think his frustration hits on those occasions when he feels the effort is not there.”

To motivate team captain Rob Blake, who has yet to regain his effectiveness after knee surgery, Robinson isolated Blake for blame after a loss to Chicago Feb. 1. Robinson hated to do it, remembering his embarrassment at being publicly pilloried as a youngster in Montreal. Yet, he credits Scotty Bowman’s finger-pointing for turning his career around, and he hoped it would have the same effect on Blake.

At least in the short term, it has.

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“He was making a point to me, but he was also making a point to the rest of the guys,” said Blake, who has since elevated his game and become more physical. “We don’t have a bunch of stars, like we used to, and by him singling me out, he was making a point that no one is above criticism.

“Not everybody’s personality is the same. He’s still in the process of learning that, but he knows how to handle each person. That’s a part of coaching that he’s mastering. . . . I didn’t want to let him down. I took it as a challenge.”

That’s what this job is for Robinson: the ultimate test of his nerves and patience.

In only his second season as a head coach, Robinson is presiding over the rebuilding of a team whose roots were long neglected. During the Wayne Gretzky era, youth was overlooked in favor of veterans, leaving the farm system nearly barren. Robinson is trying to lead into the playoffs a team that has no 20-goal scorer--the only NHL team without one--no true first line, a promising but erratic defense, a succession of injuries spawned by a grueling travel schedule and more hope than reliable assets.

Should he be faulted if the Kings miss the playoffs, or praised for keeping them within even remote distance for this long?

“He’s done a great job with them,” said Bill Watters, assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I hate to defame his personnel, but you look at his lineup and you have to say he’s done a marvelous job.

“I think you measure a guy by expectations, and if anybody expected more than this, they’re crazy. They’ve got more points than we have and we expected to have more points than the Kings. They compete like hell in every game.”

Nonetheless, the Kings, who lost to the Dallas Stars on Monday at the Forum, are slipping farther behind the top eight in the Western Conference. They’re about to miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, which would match a stretch from 1969-70 through 1972-73 as the longest drought in club history.

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Few observers expected them to make the playoffs--and they may be better off if they don’t because they then will participate in the draft lottery and get a higher pick in June. Robinson, however, doesn’t buy that reasoning.

“For me, it is [essential to make the playoffs]. Otherwise, what are we doing here?” he said. “We’re trying to get better and win games. If you’re going to miss the playoffs, you’d be better off being in last place, but I don’t think you’d be fair to yourself, your team or your fans to say, ‘We’re going to lose and be in last place.’ ”

Robinson, 45, doesn’t have to accept the losses that will continue to pile up. He can safeguard his health by exercising an escape clause in the guaranteed four-year, $3.2-million contract he signed two years ago. Admittedly never consumed by a passion to coach--if his former Montreal teammate, Jacques Lemaire, hadn’t asked him to be an assistant in New Jersey, he might never have tried it--he can retreat to the Florida home he bought a few years ago. Few would blame him. Fewer still would say he failed.

But those who know him best, those who see his agonizing--and also see the joy he derives from teaching some obscure but useful tip about playing defense--believe he will stay.

“I think his plans are to be here through thick and thin,” forward Ed Olczyk said. “This is really the first year that this is his team because we started rebuilding only last season.”

Said Blake, “He’s not that type of person. Obviously, we’ve struggled and we haven’t lived up to expectations, but for the first time, we’re starting to get something solid here. I don’t think he’ll step away. It can’t get any worse than it has been, and he can only gain from it.”

As of now, he intends to return.

“Unless all hell breaks loose in the next little while,” said Robinson, who has veto power over trades--which he has used--and a guarantee that he will be consulted on personnel moves.

“I’ve put a lot of sleepless hours into this, as have Sam [McMaster, the Kings’ general manager], Dave [Taylor, the assistant general manager], Rogie [Vachon, chief hockey operations officer] and everybody else. You don’t want to put in all that time and effort and not see some of the fruits of that.

“The players are there. The younger players are there. We’ve got to get bigger and we’ve got to bring our skill level up a little bit and we’ve got to get faster. We just have to be patient, and that’s why the draft coming up [in which they have two first-round picks] is such a big step for us. . . .

“Not being successful is a frustrating situation to be in. But at the same time, I knew there was a lot of ground to make up, as far as where our team is and where we’re going. If you don’t have any patience in a situation like that, then it becomes frustrating, I think. I’m a pretty patient person.”

If his forbearance lasts a few more years, it’s because of his faith in McMaster’s ability to find youngsters who will be the franchise’s future and his conviction that owners Philip Anschutz and Edward Roski are dedicated to improving the team and consider this venture more than a real estate deal.

“That’s not to say they’re going to just open their checkbooks and say, ‘Yeah, do this and do that,’ ” Robinson said. “They’re concerned about our direction, but I think they’re as committed as we are. . . . One good free agent and one or two of our kids develop, and we’re right there.”

Whether he will still be coaching when those kids mature is a question he can’t answer. Making a lifetime commitment to coaching is unfathomable to him.

“I don’t think you can,” he said. “I don’t think my mind could take 10 years. We were talking the other day and I said, ‘Could you just imagine taking a kid and sitting him on a table and telling him, “No, don’t eat that. No, don’t eat that,” for four years and expect him to still listen to you?’

“That’s why I think the longevity of coaches is so short. You can talk about systems all you want; there’s not a lot of systems and there’s not a lot of different things we teach. it’s how you get it across. And I think sooner or later if you’re around and you’ve talked to the same guys all the time, eventually they’re going to turn you off.”

His ideal job would be as a pro scout or a consultant who works with a team for a few weeks at a time.

“I’d like to stick with this organization,” he said. “They’ve been good with me.

“I’ve been here with the start of it, so I’d like to see the fruits of all my headaches and sleepless nights.”

*

* STAR STRUCK

The Dallas Stars defeated the Kings for the third time in a month, 2-1. C3

* King defenseman Doug Zmolek was hospitalized because of an irregular heartbeat. C3

* A sound defense, patience and an opportunistic offense has turned Dallas from doormat to division leader. C4


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