They not only made the club, but their tremendous contributions to one of hockey's greatest dynasties was cemented Wednesday when the Canadiens announced that Robinson's No. 19 and Gainey's No. 23 will be retired this season.
"The first thing I thought was that I would never get to play," Robinson said of being drafted in 1971 to a team that already had future Hall of Famers Serge Savard, Jacques Laperriere and Guy Lapointe as well as standout J.C. Tremblay on the blue-line. "When I first got drafted I figured I would get lost with all these great defencemen."
Gainey said he had much the same sentiment when he was the Habs' first-round pick in the 1973 draft, coming to a Stanley Cup champion team loaded at forward with names like Guy Lafleur, Jacques Lemaire, Frank and Pete Mahovolich, Yvan Cournoyer and Henri Richard.
"It was difficult to look at this team and see a spot for a rookie, but eventually the cream comes to the top," said Gainey, who made the team out of camp as a 19-year-old that year. "The demands on this team were very high, but the background I had prepared me to meet those demands, and we had 15 extraordinary years.
"What a group we had, what a family we had, and it showed in our results."
Robinson's No. 19 jersey will be retired on Nov. 19 before a game against the Ottawa Senators, while Gainey - Montreal's vice-president and general manager-will have his No. 23 retired on Feb. 23 before a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Robinson and Gainey will become the 13th and 14th players to be so honoured by the Canadiens, joining Jacques Plante (No. 1), Doug Harvey (No. 2), Jean Beliveau (No. 4), Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion (No.
5), Howie Morenz (No. 7), Maurice (Rocket) Richard (No. 9), Guy Lafleur (No. 10), Dickie Moore and Yvan Cournoyer (No. 10), Henri Richard (No. 16), Serge Savard (No. 18) and Ken Dryden (No. 29).
"Most of the things that happened in my career as a player happened as a dream," Gainey said. "Most of those things, I had dreamed them. But not this one."
For Robinson - who is returning behind the bench this season after a brief hiatus as an assistant to New Jersey Devils head coach Brent Sutter - Wednesday's announcement put an end to years of speculation and campaigning by others to have his number retired, and he admitted to feeling relieved the moment had finally arrived.
"Now I don't have to answer that question any more," the native of Winchester, Ont., said.
Robinson's numbers with the Canadiens were extraordinary, setting franchise records for defencemen in games played (1,202), goals (197), assists (686), points (883) and points in a season (85 in 1976-77). He also has the NHL record for playing 20 consecutive seasons in the playoffs, 17 of them with the Canadiens.
But his most remarkable statistic is his career plus-minus rating of plus-730, including a staggering plus-120 in 1976-77.
Robinson, however, diverted the credit for those achievements to his teammates, most notably his fellow "Big Three" members Savard and Lapointe.
"I was very honoured to play on some tremendous hockey teams," said Robinson, who won six Stanley Cups with the Habs. "I wouldn't have been the player I was if I hadn't played with them."
Robinson played his final three seasons with Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings from 1989-92, largely because the Canadiens would not commit to keeping him that long at age 38 despite his integral role in getting Montreal to the 1989 Stanley Cup final.
He admitted how difficult it was for him to start over at that age on a new team and how often he thinks about not being able to finish his career as a member of the Canadiens. But playing for the Kings also opened the door to his first head coaching job with Los Angeles in 1995.
"I'm disappointed I wasn't able to retire here, but I'm happy for the opportunities Los Angeles provided me," he said.
Gainey's place in both hockey and Canadiens history is difficult to quantify because his game was not defined by statistics, but rather by wins. Gainey was the prototypical shut-down forward whose tremendous defensive play inspired the creation of the Selke Trophy, which he won the first four years it was awarded.
"I know there were players of that style before Bob Gainey," he said, mentioning Canadiens winger Claude Provost as an example. "One of the aspects of the award I've always appreciated the most was that it was named after Mr. Selke. He really was strong in his belief that style of player needs to be recognized."
Gainey won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and was the second-longest serving captain in franchise history with 569 games, trailing only Beliveau's 679 games. But what really made the world take notice of the Peterborough, Ont., native was a 1979 quote from legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov dubbing him the greatest all-around player in the world.
"I got a lot of mileage out of that quote," Gainey said. "It still follows me, even today."
Gainey gave credit for the quote to Don Cherry, whose Boston Bruins were knocked out in the Cup semifinals by the Habs in 1979 after a too many men on the ice penalty allowed Lafleur to tie Game 7 in the waning moments.
Tikhonov made his comment about Gainey after watching him win the Conn Smythe Trophy in the Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers.
"If it weren't for Don Cherry, we wouldn't have been in the final," Gainey noted. "I'm going to write him, I think."