Robertson brothers' NHL dreams sprouted from competition, family bond

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nick Robertson scores his first career NHL goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Robertson is the first 18-year old to score a playoff goal for the Maple Leafs since Ted Kennedy on March 28, 1944.

Jason Robertson’s phone was “blowing up.”

The Dallas Stars winger was at a team dinner when he got word his brother, Nick, had “tucked” for his first career NHL goal in Game 3 of last year’s qualifying-round series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“I'm like, 'Oh my God,' I gotta look at it,” Jason, 21, recalls in a joint interview with Nick.

“And I see that it's a floater through the goalie's chest that goes in,” smiles Jason.

“I aimed for that,” Nick, 19, pipes up.

“Yeah, OK, he aimed for his chest, squeaked in,” says Jason.

“I just wanted a quick shot,” says Nick.

“It was pretty special,” Jason relents.

“At the time, you could have said that I was a little jealous, he played a game and I was watching, but I was happy for him.”

The back-and-forth doesn’t end with Jason’s admission. More chirps are dished out in an exchange that lasts fewer than two minutes, but is indicative of the competitive, yet co-operative bond between the brothers from a tight-knit family, and the pro hockey journey they’ve embarked on together.

Nick-Jason-Robertson-OHL Nick and Jason Robertson face each other in the OHL. (Mercedes Robertson)

Jason — Dallas’ second-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft — may have watched from the Stars’ taxi squad as his brother found early success in the bubble, but the tables have turned this season.

Nick, a second-rounder in 2019, has struggled to find his footing in the NHL after getting derailed by injuries and is back in the AHL with the Marlies. Meanwhile, his older brother overcame a stretch of scratches at the start the season to explode on to the scene in Dallas, making his case for the NHL’s Calder Trophy with 42 points 47 games to nip at the heels of the early favourite, Kirill Kaprizov, in the rookie scoring race.

But Jason isn’t thinking about individual accolades, his sights are set on two goals: getting the Stars back to the post-season, and, equally important, putting his little brother — who’s six inches and nearly 50 pounds smaller (5-9, 164 to 6-3, 210) — in his place.

“Right now, you talk to Jason and he's like 'We got one thing in mind and that is: make the playoffs,’ And then how he's going to beat his brother in the summertime with floorball,” his father, Hugh, said with a laugh.

“I mean, let's get real. There's priorities,” joked his mother, Mercedes.

The Robertsons say there’s no rivalry on the ice (as long as they both do well), but in everything else — foosball, ping-pong, NHL, FIFA or floorball, in particular — things can get heated.

“It'd be like nine o'clock, everyone's going to bed, and my brother and I used to say, 'Let's do a quick one,’ and I'd get the whole gear on and I'd be goalie, we'd do shootouts. I'd be screaming, my dad would be yelling, 'What's going on? What are you guys doing?' He came down, he was mad. He took my FIFA disk, he tore it apart,” reflected Nick on his childhood battles with Jason.

“It was a blast.”

Nick-Jason-floorball Nick and Jason Robertson play floorball during the initial COVID-19 lockdown. (Mercedes Robertson)

Literally. While the Crosbys famously had their dinged-up dryer that fell victim to Sidney’s hockey dreams, well, the Robertsons had multiple casualties: the basement and garage at the family’s home in Northville, Mich.

“If you look at the wall, they have shot through the wall, OK, to the point where you can see the studs, you can see the outside brick from inside in our garage, throughout our basement,” said Hugh.

“They're just very competitive. Very competitive.”

Hockey-room The hockey room in the basement of the Robertson home in Michigan. (Mercedes Robertson)

While Jason and Nick may have had their squabbles growing up, family always came first.

“My parents said, 'We're all a team,’ us siblings, so if I do something wrong, or I screw up, we're all getting punished. It's not just me. It's everyone else,” said Nick, 19, the youngest of Mercedes and Hugh’s five kids (three boys, two girls).

It was one for all, and all for one. Case in point: the family’s decision to uproot from Los Angeles to Michigan.

It was actually Michael, 22, the eldest son, who got the Robertsons hooked on hockey. When he was a toddler, the family attended a junior game in Colorado, and Michael was mesmerized, “tracking” the action non-stop.

Hugh and Mercedes proceeded to enroll Michael, and each child thereafter, in skating lessons, with their passion for the sport taking another leap when the Robertsons became season-ticket holders for the Los Angeles Kings in the early aughts.

It wasn’t long before all three Robertson sons were deeply involved in competitive hockey, with the hours in the family RV or on flights, to distant cities like Chicago and Winnipeg, becoming overwhelming.

“I'd … meet (Mercedes) at the airport, we change kids. I take the one she just brought back home and give her another one,” recalled Hugh, who stayed in L.A. to work at his law firm.

So in 2010, the family packed up and moved to Michigan. With Mercedes going to settle in with the kids first and becoming a full-time hockey mom, and Hugh initially commuting in on weekends.

“This experience, this journey … it wouldn't have happened if not for the tight-knit family that we have and all the sacrifices that everyone has made,” said Jason.

The emphasis on family-first can be attributed, in large part, to Mercedes. The youngest of six siblings, Mercedes moved to L.A. from Manila at the age of three as her parents fled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and came to the U.S. in search of greater opportunities.

Robertson-family The Robertson family is seen at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver. (Mercedes Robertson)

The move came at the cost of her father’s career as a lawyer, who couldn’t practice in the U.S. without returning to school, forcing him to take on work as a taxi driver and a title insurance officer — always working at least two jobs, sometimes three on weekends — to provide for his kids.

“It's not all about what you're doing, it's what the family is doing collectively. Because that's what makes us stronger: how we're all doing together and how we're all kind of trying to elevate each other,” said Mercedes.

That lesson’s been particularly important amid the COVID-19 pandemic with the family scattered across North America.

“I really tried to instill with them throughout that they have to keep the line of communication open, because if you don't establish that young in life, when they are going to be too busy as adults that could easily get away from them,” said Mercedes.

“And I just love that when I tell them, ‘Hey, we try to keep them updated on everybody's lives, whether they ask or they don't, it doesn't matter — they need to know.’”

While he FaceTimes his mom “two times a day,” — often just to catch a glimpse of the family’s black lab, Cass — it’s been nearly a year since Nick saw his family as he chases his NHL dreams with the Maple Leafs in Canada.

The extended separation was no more poignant than last fall when Nick missed U.S. Thanksgiving at home, an event that’s become the family’s “most important day of the year.” It was on that day in 2001 that Nick — born three months premature on September 11, weighing just three pounds and two ounces and needing life-saving steroid shots to open up his lungs — finally came home from the hospital.

“That was obviously pretty tough. My brother was there too, my family, my sister and everyone came over — girlfriends and everything — and I think I was just kind of jealous. I wanted to be there so bad for that,” said Nick.

Nick-birth Nick Robertson in his first few days after his birth. (Mercedes Robertson)

Nick and Jason have tried to support each other as they’ve both gone through their ups and downs over the course of the past year.

Jason made his NHL debut in 2020 for Dallas, but only suited up for three games before languishing in the bubble and then shuttling back and forth between the taxi squad this season until he made the big club for good on Feb. 4.

“I wasn't really concerned,” said Nick, comparing his brother’s struggles to get in the Stars’ lineup to a similar stint on the sidelines with the Kingston Frontenacs.

“I knew he was just waiting for his time and, obviously, the rest is history.”

Nick, on the other hand, cracked the Leafs’ lineup for four games in the bubble and scored his aforementioned “floater,” but suffered a knee injury just a few shifts into his 2020-21 regular-season debut and later re-aggravated an adductor issue that he’d been dealing with since training camp. He said it’s been hard to build momentum and felt like he’s had “three season openers,” one with the Leafs and two with the Marlies. He has a single assist in limited minutes across six NHL games, and 12 points in 16 AHL games.

“I know he did his best to keep upbeat and be ready to go,” said Jason, who spent 60 games in the AHL last season, putting up 25 goals and 22 assists.

And while Jason may be a step ahead in his NHL career right now, and Nick is happy to see him “tearing it up,” if he has it his way, he’ll be closing that gap soon enough.

“I mean, it's kind of like, 'Oh, I need to catch up.’ I'll eventually get there, but it's nice,” Nick admitted with a laugh.

With files from Sportsnet’s Joe Pacampara and David Amber

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