The perceived contradiction of the hockey enforcer — stone-hard of fist and skull but so often soft-spoken, funny and introspective — is not really a contradiction at all.
It’s actually such an overwhelming consensus that the real surprise comes when a tough guy does not also come across as a nice guy.
Shawn Thornton was the quintessential example of the articulate and generous punching machine during his seven season with the Bruins, during which he scored 34 goals and racked up 708 penalty minutes.
Thornton’s tally of thoughtful insights and gestures during his time here was far closer to his penalty minute total than his goal total. He’s a Florida Panther now, of course, where the reporters — presuming media is plural in that hockey hotbed — are at least as grateful for his arrival as the franchise’s skill players.
Thornton’s successor — or, his would-be successor who passed his first real audition last night — is an extreme example of the norm proving the rule.
Bobby Robins’s remarkable story was already familiar to Bruins fans before last night’s 2-1 victory over the Flyers in the season opener last night at TD Garden, which also happened to be his NHL debut.
Robins became something of a cult hero before he ever played an official game for the black-and-gold. His hilarious, relentless trash-talking of the Capitals’ Jason Chimera after a preseason bout made him a breakout star of “Behind the B.”
The hosts of the Toucher and Rich morning show enhanced his profile by talking about his engaging, candid blog, his long journey (11 non-NHL stops since turning pro out of UMass-Lowell in 2005-06), and openly rooting for him to make the team.
Against the odds — did we mention he turns 33 in eight days, or that he scored 9 goals and piled up 537 penalty minutes the past two seasons at Providence? — he did stick with the varsity club out of training camp.
Given the length of his vagabond’s journey — he’s had stops in Germany, Austria, Bakersfield, Calif., and five different AHL and ECHL cities in the state of New York alone — his first NHL game would have been memorable no matter the circumstances.
But the instant and permanent memory of his first NHL game after 499 in the minors and Europe was enhanced by the opportunity to do what got him here in the first place.
Robins squared off with the Flyers’ Luke Schenn midway through the second period, a ferocious rumble that drew cascading roars from the crowd and would not have been out of place on a P.J. Stock highlight reel.
Later, Robins and Schenn were spotted conversing with each other from their respective benches.
Was it a repeat of the harsh and hilarious Chimera chatter, more words with enemies?
“He was asking if it was my first NHL game,” said Robins.
And what did you say?
“I said yeah.”
It was a moment of kinship, then, between two gracious guys who had just tried to punch each other’s lights out.
That’s the everyman appeal of the NHL in one moment, right there.
“If you were him, wouldn’t you be happy right now?,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “It’s a great feeling right now. First regular season NHL game, legit NHL game, and you participate in it and you do your job and you do it well and you come out of there with a win. As a coach, you love seeing those kind of success stories on the ice.”
Julien is never going to set aside a spot on his roster solely for a sentimental favorite. But you only have to be vaguely perceptive to recognize that the coach respects Robins’s journey, perhaps because it’s not terribly dissimilar to his own.
In 12 professional seasons, Julien got all of 14 games in the NHL for the Quebec Nordiques, totaling 25 penalty minutes, a single assist, and one awesome Magnum P.I.-level mustache that Peter Chiarelli must desperately envy.
“He’s a great example for guys who have been toiling around the minors for a long time,” said Julien. “And to know that there’s still some hope at the end of the tunnel and that it’s not over just because you’re 30 years old.”
As for these Bruins, we know them well already, even with some familiar faces gone. Jarome Iginla, who scored 30 goals in his lone Boston season, left as a free-agent for Colorado. Steady, popular defenseman Johnny Boychuk was traded to the Islanders just days, an unsurprising and unsentimental move that rattled the fan-base and the locker room just the same. Watching quality players depart for reasons wholly financial is never fun.
But the familiar core from last year’s Presidents Trophy winner remains, and the methods toward the victorious outcome were hardly new. Patrice Bergeron turned Flyers star Claude Giroux into a ghost on Bauers, Zdeno Chara logged 21 sturdy minutes, and Tuukka Rask methodically stopped 19 of 20 shots, allowing only Sean Couturier’s third-period goal.
Reilly Smith, a 20-goal revelation last season, got the first goal of the Bruins season in the first period. Given he returned from a holdout for the second-to-last preseason game, it was an encouraging sign that he didn’t let any rust set in during his absence.
And Chris Kelly — a Julien favorite but a player many fans would have preferred to see depart rather than Boychuk — was the hockey hero of the night, scoring the winner with less than two minutes remaining.
The final on-ice scene — “Dirty Water” blaring, Bruins Win! streaming across the scoreboards — was a happy repeat of 35 times it occurred at the Garden last year.
But make no mistake — these Bruins are still in some kind of minor flux, as if the new season sneaked up on them. David Krejci and Gregory Campbell are out, and so the bottom of the roster was dotted with names like Cunningham, Fraser, Spooner, and, yes, Robins, who for one night at least was the center of attention at the game’s highest level.
“This all waiting for me here?,” he said upon spotting the 20 or so reporters around his locker in the postgame. Indeed it was.
The home locker room looked like a dorm room on the day before the advent of a new semester, before the inevitable ransacking; the players’ lockers didn’t even have nameplates or much for contents save for the scattered hip pad.
For the already accomplished Bruins who require no name plates, it’s good to have them back. And in this new season, it’s good to meet the new guys too.
Here’s hoping one in particular gets to stay awhile.
“I want to keep going,” said Robins. “I don’t want to just play one game. I want to string together games and string together good games and make that one season and two seasons and keep going. I definitely have got the itch. I want to stay in this league.”
Bobby Robins, the patient pugilist, has more than earned the fighting chance to do just that.