Hockey now has its own "Rudy" story for 2014/15. Just like the little linebacker for Notre Dame, the Bruins opening night roster will contain a player who many never thought would ever be there, stepping onto the ice for a regular-season NHL game in the culmination of a lifelong battle against the odds.
Bobby Robins is a 32-year-old career minor-leaguer who most Bruins fans may not have heard of, at least the casual ones. The 6'2, 225lb Wisconsinite forward has spent the most of his pro career bouncing around the American East Coast (aside from one season in Belfast, Northern Ireland, one in Jesenice, Slovenia and one in California with the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors.) after a four-year stint with U-Mass Lowell. He punched and smashed his way to fan-favorite status in Providence over the past three seasons, scoring a total of 25 points but racking up over 500 PiMs in the same time. This preseason he's come from nowhere to pretty much beat his way into Claude Julien's plans, too. Fights, hits and all the kind of stuff that the hockey pundits tell us we're supposed to value have come aplenty. Julien himself has said "he's earned his place here"
Robins himself is tailor-made for old-school hockey fans to like, and reporters too. Having spoken to him (very, very briefly) as a fan in Coventry during his time playing in Belfast a few years ago and watched him interact with British fans, he's a thoughtful, humble man who is always willing to make time for anyone.
He's also an intelligent, eloquent writer who chronicles his career through his own blog, which, somewhat unfortunately, is currently in the process of being revamped. However, there are probably few better ways to get to know the man's writing style and get a brief sense of the road he's taken then this post, which chronicles his battle with addiction to nicotine and how he beat it, cold turkey, after a cancer scare four years ago, aged 28...the moment that Robins himself credits as the moment everything changed for him.
It's, frankly, a bloody incredible read. And it gives you some idea of the mental strength of the man.
When Robins was in Belfast in 08/09, he was probably the sixth-best forward on an EIHL team. The British EIHL back then was probably an ECHL-standard league, in the main...it's a league where players go when they've already given up on an NHL dream. It's a backwater-even today...a place where North American careers go to die, or because they're clawing to get onto any sort of ladder...not a place where anyone goes if they still have ambitions of NHL icetime.
While Robins scored at a rate of a point per game in Britain and his hard-charging style of play was popular to many, he arguably just didn't dominate enough. By EIHL standards, Robins was a monster. But he was one that occasionally seemed to disappear in games...to not be massively interested. In his own words, he was "pissing his money and career away".
In the six years since he was one of the darlings of British crowds but outshone by players like Greg Chambers and Mark Hurtubise, Robins has accomplished a journey that truly is Cinderella-like. Players just don't make NHL rosters for the first time at 32. Particularly not when they've fought a nicotine addiction that ruled their lives since the age of 17 (not my words-Bobby's himself) and quit cold turkey. And certainly, certainly not when they're playing in the UK at 28 because they've decided there may not be much of a chance in North America.
But Robins has done all of these.
His inclusion on the roster has split Bruins fandom. Many are happy-but many see Robins as a fighter-a worse version of players like Shawn Thornton, who is a remnant of an NHL emphasis that's slowly being phased out...the "fourth line banger". Even Grit Central in Toronto has shown signs of changing the mindset this season, with Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren being placed on waivers.
Robins has achieved the goal he told himself he would back in 2011-he's made it to a regular-season NHL roster. But now his battle begins all over again. He has to convince the notoriously unforgiving Boston fanbase that he is, in fact, more than just the PiM-accumulating thumper that Providence fans loved for his energy and work-rate that would make a Spartan quail in disbelief. He's proven to his coaches that he deserves a shot at the top level-now he has to prove to his fans and team-mates that he can stay there, in the face of widespread scepticism.
That top-level player is in there. Even when Robins was toiling away in the backwaters of Britain, on cold winter nights in places like Edinburgh, Coventry and Kirkcaldy, there were flashes of a player who was worth so much more than what he was allowing himself to be-power and intelligence combined with a deft nose for the net and a spirit that would probably follow a puck dumped into Hell if there was a slim chance of getting to it before the Devil did.
Back then, Robins looked as far away from the NHL as he'd ever get, and frankly, for all his efforts, no-one would have given him a chance of making the NHL six years later at a time in his career when many players are already looking towards life away from the rink. Probably not even himself.
But here he is. And, for that workrate and effort alone, surely he deserves a shot.
Fourteen years after he first started his career and after a road that's taken him to the depths of despair and through dark nights of the soul, Bobby Robins will step onto NHL ice with the Bruins this week, in front of a public that's sceptical and in a few cases openly thinks others should be there instead of him.
But he's fought far worse opponents than anything that the TD Garden hecklers can throw at him, and taken blows far stronger to his spirit then any opposition enforcer will throw at him and always come back fighting.
He's earned this chance, Boston. Now, though, he has to seize it.
Rudy's story ended with the Notre Dame crowd chanting his name...but that was a film. This is real-life...but surely, after the long, lonely road he's walked, Robins deserves the chance to at least try and make his own happy ending, Boston fans?