TORONTO — “I gotta go to Babcock’s house! I gotta go to Babcock’s house!” a young Nick Robertson kept reminding his sister. “I want him to see me in my jersey and tell him I play for Little Caesars.”
It was getting late that Halloween in Northville, Mich., the Detroit suburb where Robertson’s family had recently moved from California and where he’d heard the coach of the Stanley Cup–winning head coach of the Red Wings lived with his family as well.
Little Nicky, dressed up in his Pavel Datsyuk sweater, was getting anxious during that trick-or-treating session, concerned that the jack o’ lanterns would get snuffed out before he hit the motherlode. So, naturally, his candy-fetching-per-minute analytics spiked.
“I was running, knocking on everyone’s door. I’m like, ‘Are you Babcock?’ Then I’d run, knock on the next one: ‘Are you Babcock?’ Then, finally, I got him. I think I asked him about Datsyuk — that was my favourite player at the time.”
More important: Did Coach spring for the full-sized chocolate bars?
“I think he gave me a lot of the little ones. I didn’t care. I just wanted to see him,” Robertson said Tuesday, eyes lighting up all over again.
“It’s just funny. Now my goal is not for him to give me candy but to give me shifts.”
To the surprise of the Toronto Maple Leafs, several mock-draft experts, those closest to him and the player himself, Robertson slipped all the way to 53rd overall in this past weekend’s NHL Draft in Vancouver. But as a 17-year-old interviewee, a heartwarming hockey tale or prospect with perspective, you’d have to win the lottery to land this kid.
Which is precisely how Robertson treats his life, as defined by how it began, in a sudden flurry of shock, panic and danger three months ahead of schedule.
“I was premature-born on 9/11/01, when the country was in havoc,” says Robertson, treading into the most intense development camp story you might hear.
Nick says he can only imagine how the decision the doctors posed to his father would have affected him.
Hugh’s newborn son, about the size of an eggplant after a brief 28 weeks in utero, is struggling on life support inside a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in California. Do you take him off? Will he survive? And if so, will he be faced with a lifelong disability?
Nick had already been pumped with three shots in a desperate attempt to get enough oxygen into his lungs and his brain. Three attempts to save his fragile life. All of them failed.
“It’s up to him,” recalls Nick, thinking of his dad.
“They said, ‘The fourth one, this could kill him or make him live.’ They hadn’t tried it, and the likelihood of it working was very slim. Thank God it worked.”
Baby Nick, attached to a labyrinth of tubes, would remain breathing in that hospital until American Thanksgiving, Hugh visiting him every morning until he figured it safe to take a break. In an encore of horror, baby Nick contracted a case of pneumonia while Hugh was vacationing.
“That was very scary. He had to come back from Hawaii or wherever he was. That was a life-or-death situation because it’s hard when you’re younger,” Nick says. “That birth story kinda forms me to the person I am. Never take anything for granted.
“That story will always be with me. It kinda defines how I play on the ice. You see me smiling. You see me happy to be here. I’m never in a bad mood or anything.
“Who knows? Maybe if I didn’t take that shot, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
So as Friday night’s first round passed without Robertson being called to the podium, and the first 20 names of Saturday’s second round didn’t include his, the optimistic Peterborough Petes star fought against the encroaching disappointment.
“It was a little frustrating. I was talking to my dad: ‘What’s going on? I thought I said the right things,’” Robertson says. “But once Toronto came up, I told my dad two weeks before, after the combine, ‘This is the place I want to go to. I’d rather be a 53rd than a late-first-round pick, because Toronto’s the best spot out of any organization to develop. They have the best city, the best fans.’ I’m just happy to be part of it.”
Almost as happy as fellow Pete and fellow undersized Leafs draftee Semyon Der-Arguchintsev, 18, who considers Robertson a close friend, and not just because he bums car rides off his younger teammate.
“He deserves to be a first-round pick. The Leafs are lucky to get him at 53,” says Der-Arguchintsev, as if still riding a high. “I was watching the draft, and I was nervous for him as much as I was nervous for myself [in 2018]. I had the same feeling. My hands were kinda shaking. When I saw it was Toronto’s pick, I was hoping he was going to go here.
“He’s not going to have an issue playing against bigger guys.”
Robertson chuckles at SDA’s reaction over the phone Saturday: “He was so happy, I felt like he was one of my family members when he was calling me.”
Refreshing in his candour, his eagerness, and his friendliness, Robertson admits some of the organizations he interviewed with rubbed him the wrong way, the way they drilled him with serious questions.
The Leafs brass, Robertson explains, took a different tack.
Toronto had been in constant communication with Robertson’s junior coaches and his agent throughout his breakout 55-point sophomore OHL season. At the combine, Kyle Dubas and Co. struck a conversational tone in going over video clips, in explaining the Leafs were hunting for skilled, high-IQ players and weren’t fretting over the fact that Robertson only stood five-foot-nine.
“Toronto’s just chill,” Robertson says. “I think when you’re comfortable with a group, they get the best out of you.”
From the NICU to Michigan to Toronto to, fingers crossed, the NHL one day (Robertson needs at least another year of junior development), Nick realizes his journey would not have been possible were it not for the support of his family, specifically his Filipino mom, who sacrificed her own time and friendships, moved to Michigan and then rented an apartment in Vaughn, Ont., so Nick and 19-year-old brother Jason (a Dallas Stars 2017 second-rounder) could chase their dreams around rinks.
“She’s the backbone of my career,” says Nick, who sees his being drafted as a family victory. “For me, it’s just hockey. For them, they see my birth premature and see where I came from… it’s special to them.”
On that special Saturday, as Nick shook Mike Babcock’s hand on the draft floor, he told the man he hopes to play for about that Halloween in Northville, how he was the neighbourhood kid wearing the jersey, trying to summon some magic man.
“He was surprised,” Robertson says.
“I don’t think he ever imagined a kid trick-or-treating at his house one day getting drafted by the team he’s coaching. It’s an amazing story.”
The kid is full of ’em.