Monday, 01.26.2009 / 9:48 AM CT / Feature
By Larry Wigge
A weekend of hockey in Montreal is like heaven on earth. Its a puckpourri of meeting former Canadiens and NHL greats like Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Guy Lafleur, Frank Mahovlich and more. And this weekend with the 2009 NHL All-Star Game, skills competition and all the rest of the pomp and circumstance there, well, it was better than ever.
Defenseman Stephane Robidas summed it up best, saying, "To be an All-Star anywhere is great. But to play in Montreal, where hockey is king. Well, this was something very, very special for all of us."
For Stars veteran Mike Modano, his first steps as a star had taken place in Montreal -- being drafted first overall by the Minnesota North Stars at the famed Forum in 1988, when he followed Brian Lawton as the only U.S.-born players to ever go first overall in the draft at the time. Also, his first All-Star Game at the same Forum in 1993.
For Robidas, La Belle Province is home. He grew up in Sherbrooke. Rooted for the Montreal Canadiens and though he was almost an afterthought in the 1995 NHL Entry Draft in Edmonton, going in the seventh round, 164th pick overall to the Canadiens, he achieved his dream of his life by playing in the NHL for Les Habitants in one game in the 1999-2000 season and then spent two more seasons in Montreal before he was claimed in the waiver draft by Atlanta in October of 2002.
For James Neal, the rookie power forward just laughs when asked why his name wasn't volunteered for the fastest skating, trick shot, hardest shot, most accurate shot contests in the skills competition at the All-Star Game this year. But rubbing shoulders with the games best this weekend will only give this impact-player-in-the-making with 13 goals as a rookie more confident and harder to play against. And that will vindicate Dallas' scouts, who made James their second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft at Ottawa.
All of the Dallas Stars were blown away by the attention, the history, the privilege to play in this particular game. My question to each of them: What one moment, one thing blew them away about this weekend in Montreal?
Modano's response was typical of the guy we profiled yesterday -- someone who still sees something special in everything he does. When he was asked to pose for a portrait with former Montreal greats Beliveau, Serge Savard, Dickie Moore, Richard and Lafleur, plus current All-Star Cup winners Scott Niedermayer, J.S. Giguere, Ryan Getzlaf, Vinny Lecavalier and Dan Boyle with the Stanley Cup as the centerpiece and he saw a copy of that photo, he said he absolutely had to have a copy of that. And wouldn't it be great to have all of those in the photo sign it? Mike, who wound up with an assist on one of the West's third-period goals, said, "If I had a copy of that, this weekend would have been perfect."
Robidas said, "You should have seen my two kids in the locker room all weekend. Their eyes were as big as saucers. If I still sound excited, it's because I still can't believe I've been a part of this. The real moment that I'll never forget is the game and getting a chance to play.
"Hey, I'm proud of what I've accomplished. Being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens was great, playing for them was even better. But I'm a different player today -- better I'd say -- and coming back as a guy who plays a lot of minutes in Dallas and playing here in an All-Star Game. Well, this has been the dream weekend of my career."
And Neal, well, the rookie's response was more of awe as you might expect from a kid who has yet to play 40 NHL games yet. He said, "I couldn't take my eyes off the skills contest. It's one thing to see one or two great moves a game or one or two hard shots or accurate shots. But this was crazy. In general, just being around the guys was awesome. But the atmosphere and how crazy of a hockey town this is was very special for me."
If I can inject my vote, the best story from a Dallas standpoint had to be Robidas, the warrior, the competitor, the guy who got to the NHL by taking one step forward and two steps back who at 5-11, 189 pounds with stops in Montreal, Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and Dallas again in his nine-year NHL career has never felt more welcome with himself than he does with the Stars today.
And now ... an All-Star Game invitation? This was one of those feel good stories that is too good to be true ... but is.
"It was the Saturday a week ago and I noticed that Les Jackson (Stars co-G.M.) had left me a message," Robidas said, with this wonderful look on his face that was a combination quizzical as well as an almost scared what-have-I-done-now look. "Right away, when the G.M. calls you, it's not a good sign.
"But when I called him back, he said I'd been invited to the All-Star Game as a replacement for Nicklas Lidstrom. I thought he was joking. I asked, 'Are you kidding me?' He said, 'No, they want you, Robie.' I told him there's no doubt in my mind, yeah, I'll go for sure. When do I leave?"
But there was still a couple days of disbelief that followed for the Robidas'.
"It was four days later and the NHL still hadn't announced that I was going to the game. I remember my wife was getting worried. She asked, 'Are you sure we're going?' We both had called a lot of family and friends, telling them we were going. All I could say was, 'Honey, I've got the tickets right here.' "
Robidas laughed when I wondered if he would characterize his career as one step forward and two steps back. "No," he said. "To me, you take one step ... and then run with it."
Then he continued, saying, "I don't know how many times my dad sat me down and told me not to listen to the people who said I was too small to play competitively on defense. My dad said never give in if you want something bad enough."
And who in their right mind wouldn't listen to Constant Robidas, Robie's dad, who was a cop when Stephane was growing up and is now the police chief.
Robidas was an all-round athlete as a kid. He played soccer, was a third baseman in Little League and one of those offensively skilled junior defensemen. There were no steps back at that time. But his vagabond pro career needed a jolt. And the biggest decision he had to make was after the lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 NHL season when Dallas asked him to come back.
"That wasn't a tough decision at all," Robidas continued. "The Stars gave me my first real chance in the NHL. They showed real interest in me. And besides there weren't any other teams banging at my door offering me a contract after Chicago decided to let me go after the lockout."
Robidas said things couldn't have worked out better for him, in fact, because he was comfortable in Dallas, plus the rules change after the lockout were designed for skill and speed not size.
And now, after the weekend in Montreal, he has an even better story to help his kids remember and tell his grandchildren.
In Montreal and all around La Belle province, they would say one thing to sum up with these three Dallas Stars felt -- Magnifique!!