Robertson chasing Leafs job means missing family’s ‘most important day’

Toronto Maple Leafs' Nick Robertson takes to the ice as training camp opens in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — There is the U.S. Thanksgiving celebration Nick Robertson imagines and the one he is actually experiencing today.

The gulf between them is wide.

“If I would have a choice, it would be with my whole family back home in Michigan with the snow,” said Robertson. “We’d just have maybe like there’s Honey Baked ham … that we like. Just being around family, friends, girlfriends, all that stuff; bring them over and just kind of enjoy ourselves.

“That would be my fantasy Thanksgiving.”

The 19-year-old Toronto Maple Leafs hopeful relays this vision from the small suburban Airbnb he’s rented while working towards turning his professional dreams into reality. He’s living on his own now for the first time. The new domestic responsibilities have taken some adjustment and Robertson chuckles while retelling a story about sending all the fire alarms blaring in the apartment after he tried pan frying a steak in the oven.

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Robertson last stepped foot in the United States in May.

That’s when last he saw his parents, Mercedes and Hugh, or any of his four siblings. The California kid with strong Michigan roots made the difficult decision to remain in Canada after the Maple Leafs were eliminated from the NHL’s return-to-play in August because he felt it gave him the best opportunity to get ready for the coming season.

COVID restrictions are keeping families from gathering en masse right now but most in his situation would already have moved home for the off-season. Being away for so long has been tough.

“Yeah I think that’s an understatement,” said Robertson. “It’s been pretty hard, especially for my parents.”

It’s particularly difficult today. Nick is the family’s miracle baby after being born three months premature and getting saved by a do-or-die shot that allowed oxygen to reach his brain and lungs. He arrived on Sept. 11, 2001 but didn’t leave hospital until more than two months later — coming home for the first time on U.S. Thanksgiving.

“It’s the most important day of the year for us,” Hugh Robertson told the Toronto Star in 2019. “We have a whole new take on Thanksgiving. He survived.”

While his parents and a couple siblings are together in Northville, Mich., Nick is back working at the Leafs practice facility. He approaches his craft with a single-minded determination that belies his age. Robertson is inside the facility four times per week and averages more than three hours a visit, split between sessions in the gym and on the ice.

That work is a source of his confidence and part of a plan to earn a roster spot after an off-season where the Leafs added six other forwards through trades or free agency.

Now three months beyond his NHL debut — Robertson played four playoff games inside the bubble against Columbus — and two months after his 19th birthday, he’s back in the lab making adjustments and closely studying the tape of his performance versus the Blue Jackets.

“I think I did pretty well,” said Robertson, who scored a goal and averaged 12 minutes per night. “I think you can tell I was a little frantic or nervous, but that’s to be expected given the position we were in. You know we were in playoffs and I was playing the same team over and over and over again and with all this COVID stuff, too — no fans — like it was just a weird type of hockey.

“I think I’ve adapted to it now and I think the confidence is up there for myself again.”

Rather than head home after the Leafs were eliminated, he’s left nothing to chance. Robertson was unsure how COVID restrictions might affect his ability to skate in either California or Michigan so he decided to work out of the team’s facility instead. That also allowed him to avoid another 14-day quarantine before training camp because he didn’t cross the border.

He’s been on a journey befitting The Littlest Hobo — staying with family friends in Windsor, then crashing at Jack Campbell’s house, then spending a couple weeks with Jake Muzzin’s family before renting his own short-term apartment.

Along the way, he’s started playing video games with Zach Hyman and spent the last two months training alongside other Toronto-based teammates. He’s feeling less and less like the new guy now.

“Muzzin opened his house and his family with [wife] Courtney and [daughter] Luna,” said Robertson. “I think that was one of the good times I’ve had so far is staying with him. I stayed there for about two weeks and just kind of got to know him and [understand] the NHL lifestyle and asked him questions and everything.”

As for areas of personal growth, they’ve been both predictable and not. He’s prioritized adding strength and power to help withstand the physical challenge of facing men. He’s also gone through a lengthy trial-and-error period in search of a more effective stick.

Robertson’s brief taste of the NHL left him feeling like he needed to find more room to make plays, so he started shortening his CCM by half an inch at the start of each week. And he kept going shorter and shorter from there.

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“It was weird, like at the beginning of the week it felt too short, but by the end of the week it felt too long,” he said.

He’s settled on something about three inches shorter than what he used in the NHL bubble. He is reducing the flex, too, to make sure he doesn’t take anything away from the shot that helped him score 55 times in 46 Ontario Hockey League games with the Peterborough Petes last season.

“I realized that in junior, they know who you are and they kind of respect you,” said Robertson. “Whereas, you go to the NHL, they know who you are, and the fact that they know you’re a young guy, they’re going to get in your face and they know that you may cough it up or whatever.

“I think just a shorter stick kind of gives a little more control to myself. If you think about it, the puck’s closer to your body, so when the puck’s closer you have like that millisecond to make a move or make a play.”

This is a young man who is chasing any edge he can find.

For Robertson, that means focusing on what he can accomplish each day rather than fretting about all of the uncertainty around him. There’s a chance he’ll be loaned to Team USA for the world junior tournament next month depending on how soon NHL training camps get scheduled to open. And if he’s not among the top 12 or 13 forwards on the cap-challenged Leafs once the season begins, it’s not entirely clear where he’ll play.

Those thoughts are easier to push aside when you’re leaving nothing on the table with preparation. It’s keeping Robertson from the kind of Thanksgiving he’d love to be having with family today, but it hasn’t left him feeling any less grateful for the life he is living.

“I know it’s hard being away from home, but it’s kind of a blessing in disguise because this is an experience that not many 19-year-olds can have before they step in the league,” he said.

“It’s a grind, for sure, but it’s all for a reason.”

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