The wonderful world of sports, so often the domain of the young, has been captivated in the spring of 1986 by venerable veterans. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters and Bill Shoemaker the Kentucky Derby, and now Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson are trying to lead Montreal to a 23rd Stanley Cup. The two over-30 natives of Ontario have been in the National Hockey League longer than eight of the arenas have been. They've logged more ice time than the Zamboni rink-surfacing machines.
Now they're trying to bring their experience to bear against the Calgary Flames in the best-of-seven championship final, which resumes with Game 3 tonight in the Montreal Forum after the teams split the first two games in Calgary over the weekend.
Robinson is in his 14th season and has been on five championship teams. Gainey is in his 13th year and has hoisted the cup four times. And while the feats of Nicklaus and Shoemaker are indeed impressive, there is one big difference: Gainey and Robinson are playing a game in which you get hit. To fully appreciate their longevity, consider that the average NHL career lasts less than five years.
On a Canadien squad laden with eight rookies, they are surrogate father figures who set the example -- sometimes playing half a game and more with unstinting effort. Gainey is the captain and Robinson an assistant captain. If a young player needs encouragement or chiding, these two provide it.
It's difficult for a young player to watch Robinson and Gainey and not improve. Robinson has been perhaps the most solid defenseman in the league this season, while Gainey as usual is the premier defensive forward.
Furthermore, on a Montreal team that is more defense-oriented than its great forerunners, they become even more vital. If you have to clear the puck out of your zone, Robinson and Gainey are the men for the job. Two quick passes and it's gone.
Having a little problem stopping the other people's power play? No. 19 and No. 23 are more effective than ``Ghostbusters.''
Gainey typically plays opposite the opponent's big scorer and gives him very little room to operate. In the semifinals he held Pierre Larouche, the New York Rangers' hot offensive gun, to exactly no goals. In one game Larouche got only two shots.
``I never felt good about my chances the entire series,'' said Larouche ruefully.
Gainey, the only left winger to be named Most Valuable Player in the playoffs (1979), doesn't score profusely himself, but comes up with crucial goals in close games.
``Guy Carbonneau, Chris Nilan, and I are basically a checking line,'' he says quietly (both he and Robinson are strong, taciturn, modest men who don't duck the media even after the saddest losses), ``but we're expected to score once in a while.''
Both Gainey and Robinson have obviously succeeded where many other players of their years fail -- making whatever adjustments prove necessary to keep up with their ever-younger and faster opponents.
``I don't have the speed I once had, but I try to control the puck better and play my position better,'' Gainey says. He pauses significantly and engages your eyes, then adds intensely, ``I still have the same fire.''
Robinson offers a slightly different view on the subject. ``The game has changed,'' he says. ``I don't feel I've lost a step. It's just that everybody else has gained one.''
Team captains in the NHL are given varying degrees of authority and take the assignment with varying degrees of seriousness. To Gainey the ``C'' on his red, white, and blue jersey is a badge of responsibility and honor.
``I'm proud to be part of one of the finest traditions in sports,'' he says. ``Sometimes the tradition helps, and sometimes it adds to the pressure. When things are going well, the team is at ease and there are few problems. When you're losing, a captain's job is to get the players out of the closet. You start individually and then call a team meeting if necessary.''
Assistant captain Robinson, the playoff MVP in 1978 and a two-time choice as the league's best defenseman, is always part of the leadership process. He likes to refer to the famous sign that hangs amid the photographs of the Canadiens' teams in their Forum locker room: ``To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.''
Robinson and Gainey are not so much throwing the torch as they are carrying it.
Says Robinson, ``When I was a young player here, Frank Mahovlich and Jean Beliveau were a tremendous help to me. I have to fill that role now. I worked plenty hard to prove to them I belonged.''
The Canadien rookies were impressed going into the playoffs when Robinson asked for more playing time. To them, that was leadership.
``This is a less experienced team than the 1979 team that last won the cup,'' says Robinson, whose avocation is visiting antique shows. ``I have to cover up for the young players' mistakes the way a Serge Savard [now the Montreal general manager] covered up for me when I was a kid.''