Robins fighting more than just the odds

by Kathryn Uggerholt || AHL On The Beat Archive

The gloves flew off and it was on. In his first shift with the Providence Bruins in Portland, Maine, Bobby Robins was fighting the player he used to fashion himself after, Ryan Hollweg.

Hollweg threw some left hooks and Robins retorted with some rights until he had his opponent on his knees for a brief moment. The two continued to spin as the refs stepped in to pull them apart and Robins skated off to the penalty box with a look of fury on his face.

But outside the Providence Bruins locker room following a Thursday morning practice, Robins is anything but furious. Still dressed in full gear, Robins explains the pivotal moment on the ice in a soft-spoken voice.

“It’s like everything just came together at that moment and that was the first shift and it was just one of those things,” he said. “It happened but I think I have prepared myself for that moment over the last couple years. The moment presented itself and I acted accordingly through preparation.”

Robins had almost three and a half years to prepare since he had last played in more than just a handful of AHL games. The native of Peshtigo, Wis., has played in four leagues since graduating with honors from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in 2006. Undrafted, Robins was signed by the Ottawa Senators and spent a year playing for their AHL affiliate in Binghamton.

After his first full professional season, Robins bounced around and found himself on four different rosters for his sophomore season. He spent the majority of the year with Elmira of the ECHL, tallying 35 points with his 18 goals and 17 assists through 68 games. He also had AHL stints with the Rochester Americans, Albany River Rats and Syracuse Crunch.

Looking for a change of scenery and new experiences, and frustrated by his first two professional seasons in North America, Robins headed overseas and played the next two years in Belfast, Northern Ireland and Jesenice, Slovenia.

“In reality,” he said, “it was more I had some personal issues that I had to deal with and some balancing out that I needed to do within myself before I was able to realize my potential as a hockey player and as a person.”

The forward had the best intentions for his career in Europe.

“I wanted to have a good career over in Europe, go see the world and make good money over there and have great adventures for the next five, 10 years,” Robins explained. “And I ended up in Slovenia and it didn’t turn out to be the year I wanted it to be.”

After scoring 21 goals and recording 46 points in 43 games for Belfast in 2008-09, Robins did not meet the expectations he set for himself in Jesenice, with only three goals and four assists in 34 games. There were also financial issues with the team, and to top it off, Robins had a cancer scare coming from a nearly decade-long chewing tobacco habit. Everything happened at once.

It was a defining moment for Robins. He realized he needed to make some changes and he even questioned if he wanted to continuing pursuing hockey as a career.

Robins figured out what was important to him and where he wanted his life to go, as he came back to play for Bakersfield in the ECHL.

“I was going over my options,” Robins said. “I didn’t do well over in Europe and I was considered old over here in North America, and it was really deciding what my future was.”

But he told himself, “I’m a couple years older but I’m going to get in the best shape of my life and give 100 percent of me to this dream that I’m chasing.”

The decision to play hockey instead of a 9-to-5 job was something still on Robins’ mind going into the 2011-12 season. In fact, Robins was contemplating calling it quits if he did not get called for the season and find a steady place on a team.

Yet Robins still got to chase his dream. After putting up 15 points and 123 penalty minutes in 28 games with Chicago in the ECHL and a two-game return to the AHL with the Abbotsford Heat, Robins signed a tryout contract with the Providence Bruins on Dec. 28, 2011.

After 14 games with Providence, he earned an AHL contract with the club, solidifying his role as one of the league’s signature tough guys – an identity Robins did not have until he returned from Europe when he realigned the things most important to him.

In just 33 games with the Bruins in 2011-12, Robins registered a team-high 150 penalty minutes.

“I knew that if I wanted to play in the American League and in the NHL, that’s a facet of my game that needed to be there,” Robins said. “I wanted to be an intimidating power forward and a powerful forechecker and a heavy hitter. If you take those and you don’t add that element that you can also fight, you’re missing a piece to the puzzle.”

“It’s not that I’m going out there and looking for fights, but a lot of the time it’s after a big hit or if you’re really getting under your opponent’s skin, that means you’re doing something right,” he said with a smile.

The courage Robins found in himself came after a lot of soul searching, especially after the 2011 deaths of Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak – and the three-part series the New York Times wrote on Boogaard’s life – brought attention to issues like concussions, substance abuse and depression.

“I decided to keep doing what I’m doing,” Robins said, “but to try and be safe and smart about it and to realize if I’m starting to feel any issues.

“I feel those same pressures but I try and release it through more positive outlets like writing or meditation,” he added. “I try and go at it with more of a Zen state than a destructive state.”

The decision to go on dealing with such pressures is forward thinking by Robins. “I don’t just consider myself a hockey player; I’d like to have a career after hockey and whatever I do,” he said.

And what started as an outlet for Robins – writing – has really taken off for him.

“This is a big year for me to maybe get a book going and start taking writing more seriously as a daily commitment to get the story out,” Robins said. “Whether it’s journalism or writing books later on or just doing a blog full-time, I’d definitely like to do that with my future.”

Using his hockey name to get garner attention, Robins started his blog in the summer of 2012 and he began to tell his story.

“I just wanted to get it out there” he said. “I felt like I had a message that could benefit some people and I wanted to put some positivity out there into the world. I figured that’s a way I can do it.”

Ranging in topics from call-ups to training camp to his battle with chewing tobacco, Robins is a hit among his fans, who can relate to him closely.

“I know a lot of people comment about how my blog helped them to quit chewing tobacco, quit smoking and improve their life in some way and it makes it all worthwhile,” Robins says. And responding to reader comments “definitely makes it that much more special.”

Even with his foot in the door in regards to writing, the power forward now has little to worry about with a steady job in the AHL. Robins said signing a contract with Providence “felt amazing” and his journey along the way made it all the better.

“Signing that contract made it clear to me that you can accomplish anything if you put your heart and soul into it and you’re 100 percent invested in something,” Robins said. “It was a very valuable lesson for me not only in hockey but in the aspect of life.

“Everybody says that you can do anything you want, but when you attain what you’ve worked so hard for against some heavy odds, it makes it very clear that it’s true.”