A Masshole in Full
Trio Club is on Marion Square, a large park that’s kind of like Charleston’s version of Boston Common. The club has two levels—first floor has live music, second floor has a DJ—and in a city that takes its nightlife seriously, it’s routinely described as the bar. A year ago, Robbie bought a half-ownership stake. After retiring from hockey in 2003, he’d bounced around for a little bit, struggling with that athlete’s transition when the limelight fades, when he has to stop staying out late with the boys and instead has to get up with the men. Robbie was a fireman for six months, but quit because he was going nuts sitting around waiting for action. Then he got into real estate and did well enough (despite showing houses in sweatpants and a T-shirt) to buy and renovate an elegant two-bedroom loft overlooking fashionable King Street. But since the market tanked, he’s been focusing on his bar. He’d been a bartender at Trio for a while, and when he inquired about acquiring a piece of it, the owner, Andy Selent, was skeptical. "People would say to me, ‘Coocs is a good hockey player and he knows everyone, but what does he know about running a business?’" says Selent. "Since he took over, business has been up 50 percent. Now I just stay out of his way."
Watching Robbie behind the bar, you see him in his element. Bartending is a series of micro-encounters, which fits his attention span perfectly. He’ll bust balls, serve drinks like a maniac, down leftover Red Bull, go and go and go. He’s been known to vacuum the club in his underwear, or take a ladder out to the middle of the packed dance floor and start changing the light bulbs.
He’s also become legendary for his tactics in dealing with the drunken "birdbrains who think they’re hot shit," as he says. If there’s trouble, he’ll hop over the bar and pull his go-to move, grabbing the guy and ripping the pocket right off his dress shirt. "You wouldn’t believe how perfectly it comes off," says Patrick Sullivan, who’s tended bar with Robbie for years. "He should have them hanging on his wall like a hunter has horns."
If some bigshot comes in and runs up a $250 bar tab and then leaves a $10 tip, Robbie will follow him outside and return the tip, in his face. For Charlestonians, this is Coocs at his most endearing. "In his world, he’s the police for the bad guys," said Brian King, who works in a clothing store on King Street where Robbie goes to rib the seersucker set. (King, incidentally, wants it noted for the record that he lived with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead in Oregon in the summer of ’68, and says Robbie definitely stacks up against the big personalities he’s known in his life.)
Chantel Fitzsimmons, the wife of one of Robbie’s former teammates, Jason Fitzsimmons, gets emotional remembering how she was at the bar once and some guy was messing with her. Robbie jumped over, and this time ripped the man’s whole shirt clean off. "It made my heart swell, just knowing he had my back," she says.
This is a piece of Robbie that’s always been there, though perhaps it was obscured by his antics. When he was growing up, he was often the smallest kid, the last picked for the game. His mother says he was very, very sensitive. So he forged a reputation in the only way he could: He became a scrapper, someone who wouldn’t back down, who always stood up for himself and took care of his friends. Even when he was drinking, he’d brawl all night, spend the early morning in the ER getting stitches, then go straight to the North End to bathe his uncle, who has cerebral palsy. (Robbie would often get naked himself, his way of trying to keep things from getting awkward.) In Charleston, it seems fair to say, he’s felt free to fully be himself, maybe in ways he wouldn’t or couldn’t back home.
"When people think about Robbie, it’s just this crazy, crazy guy. But deep down, he does it because he just wants everyone to be happy," says his sister-in-law, Holly Concannon. "The day of my father’s funeral, it must have snowed 10 inches. After the funeral, Robbie drove my mother and me home. And he starts doing doughnuts in the parking lot. Here’s my mother, who just buried her husband, and she’s dying laughing."