Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson gains perspective from military kids, hustles for final cut

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nicholas Robertson (89) scores against Montreal Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault as Canadiens' William Trudeau defends during second period NHL preseason hockey action in Montreal, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. (Graham Hughes/CP)

TORONTO — Nick Robertson stands in a Scotiabank Arena hallway holding an invisible bugle to his lips and mimicking the buoyant notes of an army wakeup call.

Do-d-d-do-doo-doo … Do-d-d-do-doo-do-dooo-do …

Such was the Toronto Maple Leafs winger’s alarm clock in August, when Nick and his older brother traveled to North Carolina to host the Jason & Nick Robertson Hockey Clinic for military kids at Fort Liberty, formerly known as Fort Bragg.

The brothers’ two-day charitable initiative — 25 sets of hockey equipment were donated from NHLPA Goals & Dreams to the United Heroes League — left an indelible impression on Nick, a 9/11 baby whose intense birth story personally ties him to American history.

There was one bed available at Fort Liberty for the Robertson brothers to sleep in the barracks while they ran the camp alongside their long-time skills trainer, Tommy Mannino.

Jason went to a hotel; Nick stayed put.

Hence the bugle’s joyous blast jolting Nick out of the sheets at oh-six-hundred hours, sharp. (He fell back asleep, though.)

“I’m not gonna lie. Like, I didn’t know what to expect, and then at 6 a.m., the bugle came out to wake everyone up,” Nick said, smiling. “The biggest fort in all of America. It’s like a functioning city.”

Speaking to Sportsnet about his summer experience, Nick throws himself into conversation with the same gusto he brings to every gotta-make-the-squad shift.

His father, Hugh, and Jason organized the Fort Liberty trip and basically told Nick he was coming along. The brothers spent two days talking to kids, running drills, and observing a lifestyle far removed from the pro athlete’s. (Nick admits more of the army families were fans of Jason’s Dallas Stars, because of Texas’s U.S. military ties, than his Leafs, but he met a few rooting for blue.)

Following the first on-ice session with the kids, Nick was shagging pucks with the players and discovered one of them was a three-star general.

It clicked.

“Literally everyone there was involved in military, whether it was the Zamboni driver, the workers around the rink, the hockey team that came out, coaches, everyone,” Robertson said.

“You take life over here for granted. Because over there, life is pretty much a grind mentally and emotionally. Families lose loved ones, or loved ones are gone for a long time. So, it definitely made me grateful for the life I live because of them.”

Such perspective is well timed, considering Robertson might’ve been at risk of feeling sorry for himself as the 22-year-old prospect who just can’t catch a break — with fresh faces Matthew Knies, Fraser Minten and Easton Cowan snatching headlines that used to be his.

Multiple injuries and the pandemic have conspired to limit the sharpshooter to cumulatively just one season’s worth of development (a total of 82 games) over his three years since turning pro.

Robertson finds himself back on the bubble this Leafs camp, too experienced to be the hot topic at Traverse City, yet not experienced enough to require waivers should GM Brad Treliving elect to start Robertson’s 2023-24 on the Marlies farm.

Robertson first met Treliving at the 2019 combine, before he was eventually selected in the second round by Toronto (“I had a good interview with Calgary,” he said).

The two reconnected this summer ahead of training camp, and Treliving instructed the feisty scorer to approach camp the same way he did in 2022, when Robertson lit up pre-season and deserved to make the cut.

“Nick is a guy who I am really interested in seeing. I’ve had some good discussions with Nick right when I got here and Nick was in town, and over the course of the off-season. He is a driven kid,” Treliving said at the outset of camp.

“There are people that you have to give a boot in the rear, and then there are people you have to hold back. He is a guy who is pedal-down all the time, which I love.

“The one thing that has impeded Nick has been injuries, which you can’t control. What are his chances? Everybody has a chance.”

To boost those odds, Robertson has spent nine months diligently rehabbing the right shoulder he injured when L.A.’s Matt Roy checked him hard and he slammed awkwardly into the boards in December, snuffing out another hopeful season.

Obsessed with personal improvement, with the end goal of embedding himself as an everyday NHLer, it’s natural that Robertson has replayed the Roy hit over in his mind.

“In a perfect world, I could’ve done something differently in that situation. But part of it is bad luck. Maybe it’s looking too deep and thinking what I could do differently, maybe be more cautious along the boards,” Robertson said.

“Having now a couple of injuries pile up, you’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I should do something differently.’ But I don’t know. The more reps you get, you’re just not so anxious to get to the boards.”

Robertson’s shoulder hasn’t exactly returned to normal — but “it’s 100 per cent for what I need it to do,” he said.

“I can’t throw a football. It doesn’t have that external rotation. The strength is still a little off to my left. But as far as what I need it to do on the ice, it’s not hindering me at all.”

Not according to the 19 shots he’s ripped on net through five(!) pre-season games, or this highlight-reel goal he scored in Montreal over the weekend:

“He’s been all over it,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, who has been heaping tons of work on Robertson’s plate this month. “He has had some great scoring chances. He looks really fast and confident with the puck.

“He looks fast and explosive — all of the things you come to expect with him.”

Keefe didn’t blink Monday night when Robertson — subbing in for the injured Calle Järnkrok on a scoring line with William Nylander and Max Domi — refused to back down from rugged Montreal defenceman Arbur Xhekaj.

A willingness to battle has never been the kid’s issue. He’s downright militant about his craft.

“Robbie’s a competitor. He sticks his nose in,” Keefe said. “I never question that with him.”

With only a week to go until the Maple Leafs’ season begins for real, Robertson appears to be the 13th forward on a cap-crunched roster.

His waiver exemption could work against him once again, but his modest $796,667 cap hit will help facilitate his status as next-man-up in his platform season.

“I’ve been getting a lot of shots, a lot of opportunity. So, I’m happy with that. And I’ve been playing all the time, too. So, it’s good to get the rust off,” Robertson said, upbeat.

“Now in the second half of training camp, I want to have a good week, play well and accommodate my linemates to the best of my possibilities. So, I’m happy with my camp so far.

“I’ve got to obviously make the team, and I’ve got to prove it to myself. But I’ll be given every opportunity to do so. Trying to take advantage of it.”

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