Former NHL All-Star, coach makes successful transition to polo

Robinson trades skates for horses

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Larry Robinson had a Hall of Fame career as an NHL defenseman. He's still keeping the other guys from scoring -- only now he does it on horseback instead of on skates.

Robinson, who won seven Stanley Cups as a player or coach, has made a seamless switch from hockey to polo.

On the ice, he used his body to control the play and move the puck out of danger. On horseback, he uses the weight of a 1,000-pound thoroughbred to ride opponents out of the play and knock the ball in the other direction.

''In this sport, the equalizer is the horse,'' the 51-year-old Robinson said. ''So you can be a big guy, and you still don't have the advantage, because you may have another horse that's stronger, or a guy who's a better rider, and bang, he can take you out.''

Most great polo players are small men, Robinson said -- great riders who can smack the ball.

Robinson is a big man -- 6-foot-4, 225 pounds -- and he has a long reach that gave him an advantage in hockey.

Even though he grew up on a farm, Robinson didn't start riding seriously until his mid-20s, late for polo. During one hockey offseason, friends invited him to a match. He quickly became passionate about the sport.

Robinson, a six-time NHL All-Star, helped the Montreal Canadiens win five Stanley Cups in the 1970s and another in 1986. He coached the New Jersey Devils to the Cup in 2000.

He remains a polo amateur despite playing for 18 years. Sometimes his mallet hits turf. Sometimes it hits nothing at all.

Robinson compared his two sports.

''Playing and passing and coverage is so similar,'' he said.

The frustrating part of polo is the riding.

''Until you can get the horse as one with you,'' Robinson said, ''you can't excel.''

He is quick to say playing beats coaching. ''As a player, there's always a way of relieving frustration,'' he said. ''As a coach, it just eats you up.''

Robinson broke his leg playing polo, more serious than any injury in 20 years of pro hockey. Polo is expensive initially, each player needing six horses for each match. Robinson recently paid $25,000 for two thoroughbreds.

In Florida, where he has a farm, he and teammate Eddie Martinez once played on a Tampa Bay Polo Club team that lost in the final of the Copper Cup in West Palm Beach.

''I still play that game over in my mind,'' Robinson said.

He remains involved with hockey. After the Devils fired him as coach, he returned to the team as an assistant. He will work next season as a consultant to the team and expects to help with their AHL affiliate, the Albany River Rats.

There's a major advantage to being stationed in upstate New York. He won't be far from Saratogoa Springs, a pocket of polo playing.

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