Elijah Roberts was a key member of the defence corps on Canada’s gold-medal winning entry at the 2017 World Under-17 Hockey challenge. He played on both the left and right sides of the depth chart, often filling in with different partners and even at times climbing into the team’s first pairing. If not for injury, though, he wouldn’t even have been on the roster.
In an interview posted on Hockey Canada’s website, director of player personnel Ryan Jankowski admitted that not only was Roberts short of the 66-man list used to draw up the rosters of the three Canadian entries in the event, but he was also not invited to the 111-man development camp which was used to suss out candidates. “He was a guy who was just a little bit short of being at summer camp,” Jankowski said. “And as we went through our process, as we named our rosters, we knew we had injuries, so we wanted to give him a little more time [at the OHL level], and let him get a little more comfortable. We wanted to make sure we had enough viewings, and a lot of looks at him.”
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One of those looks came from Scott Walker. Walker won an OHL championship as the head coach of the Guelph Storm in 2013-14 and helped his team to the MasterCard Memorial Cup final that same year. Now, he’s a player development consultant with the Vancouver Canucks.
He was also Roberts’ coach on Canada White, and late in the tournament he expressed his gratitude that the decision had been made to include Roberts. “He was a treat to watch,” Walker recalled. “He could skate, he’s undersized but never loses a battle. He’s a new age hockey defenceman. He’s a warrior, too. You look in the room when you’re talking to the team and he’s right on the edge of his seat; he’s a gamer. I’m really glad they went with him, because those are the kind of guys you want to go to battle with.”
Roberts’ competitive nature was on display throughout the tournament. He didn’t hesitate to engage physically in front of the net or in the corner of the rink; he seemed to thrive in the middle of the action. That he’s 5-foot-8 and just 154 lb., never seems to have entered his mind. “He’s a fast skater, very mobile, very aggressive on the ice,” said one scout. “He’s been very aggressive at the OHL level, too. He’s just a good kid; he skates hard and he works hard.”
That mobility and aggression have enabled Roberts to play a position which is generally reserved for bigger skaters. He’s a regular with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, having played in 12 games already. At the U-17 tournament, he was the lone left-shooting defenceman on his team asked to cross over and play on the starboard side. That allowed him to spend most of the tournament on a pairing with 6-foot-1 212-lb., Yan Aucoin, a QMJHL defender who also happened to be the heaviest defenceman on the roster. Roberts didn’t stay in that role, though. Walker used him in a variety of roles—top pair, left side, right side—and he used him a lot.
Just being on the roster was something of a triumph; playing such important minutes was even more validation that anything is possible, even for a 5-foot-8 defenceman. That validation should give Roberts confidence through the hard times he’ll undoubtedly experience as he continues to pursue hockey. His size means he’ll always be questioned, and one scout I spoke to suggested that hockey sense was an issue at times, too.
Hockey Canada didn’t have him on its roster in the summer; that won’t be the last time in Roberts’ career that he’s looked over by scouts and managers. But this fall, Roberts proved that he wasn’t just capable of playing against the world's best players in his age group, he showed he was able to excel as part of a championship team. He answered doubters with a strong performance; it’s something he’ll need to do again and again as he tries to work his way to the NHL.