There is no specific way to scout a special hockey player.
Some prospects touted as a “can’t miss,” when given the opportunity, fall flat on their faces. Some prospects with a lesser billing wind up on the All-Star team.
Nathan Robinson falls into the latter category. A fifth-round selection of the Belleville Bulls in the Ontario Hockey League draft, Robinson had to bide his time and make the most of every second he was on the ice. Even after proving himself at the junior level, Robinson had to sign as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings on opening night of the Griffins’ 2002-03 season.
“My first two years in Belleville, we had a deep lineup. We had a few guys that went in the first or second round (of the NHL draft),” Robinson said.
In 1998-99, the Bulls featured a lineup with four NHL draft picks, including future AHL All-Stars Justin Papineau, Ryan Ready and Jonathan Cheechoo. The following season, Belleville skated nine current or eventual NHL draft picks, including five players selected in the first three rounds of their respective drafts. Still, despite the pedigree of his teammates, Robinson’s name was firmly on the minds of the opposition.
Griffins teammate Matt Ellis played for the St. Michael’s Majors and against Robinson.
“Nate played the same way then as he does now, blazing speed. Speed kills. That’s a pretty intimidating factor,” Ellis said. “He was definitely one of the players that we keyed on whenever we came in to play Belleville. We knew that we were going to have to be on our game to contain Robinson.”
While speed may kill on the ice, the standing still was killing Robinson off of it.
“I just had to be patient and play the waiting game for a chance to get a regular shift and play on special teams,” Robinson said. “I just worked hard and made the most of it. I practiced like it was a game. I just worked hard and tried to be the best player in practice. I think that has made me a better player today, as far as just being patient.”
In his final season with the Bulls, Robinson led the OHL in scoring with 110 points.
Despite the pot of gold that eventually came his way, it wasn’t always easy for Robinson. There were times he considered plying a different trade.
“There have been some emotional times when I just didn’t want to play anymore,” Robinson explained. “A player would be lying to you if he told you that everything has been sweet potatoes his whole career. There are always ups and downs. Luckily, I lived only 30 minutes from my hometown, so I got to go home a lot. My mom and dad were always at the rink watching my games and taking me out to dinner afterwards. They’d give me a pep talk if I didn’t dress or whatever.”
It is a good thing they did. In just his second professional season, Robinson has blossomed into an American Hockey League All-Star. Robinson was selected to play for the Canadian AHL All Stars at the 2004 Pepsi All-Star Classic on Feb. 8 and 9. He will get a chance to represent the Griffins in front of their faithful fans.
“Obviously, I’m honored,” Robinson said. “It was something I had in mind at the beginning of the season, but I didn’t really focus on it because I just try to take one step at a time. It’s a good situation, it’s in Grand Rapids, so I can play in front of the home fans.”
While being tabbed an all-star is a prestigious honor that Robinson will never forget, there was one highlight that will likely surpass it when Robinson looks back at this season.
On Nov. 27, the Detroit Red Wings recalled Robinson, and he made his NHL debut the next night against the New York Islanders. He went scoreless in five games with the Red Wings, but another fairy tale came true for Robinson.
On Saturday, Dec. 6, Nathan Robinson laced his skates up in the visitors dressing room of the Air Canada Centre as the Red Wings prepared to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. Born in nearby Scarborough, and raised in Kingston, Robinson grew up in Maple Leaf territory.
“It was a Saturday night, Hockey Night in Canada – which is like Monday Night Football here. I watched a little bit of it. I still have the tape. Having Ron MacLean say my name – he’s definitely a legend. It was always a dream of mine to have him say my name. It was cool to have that happen.”
After recording 17 points last season, Robinson has already obliterated those totals this season. Robinson leads the team with 13 goals and 25 points and is tied for second on the team with 12 assists in 32 Griffins outings.
Robinson was named Sher-Wood AHL Player of the Week for the period ending Dec. 21, 2003. He accumulated nine points in the three-game-stretch, including his first professional hat trick, scored in a span of just 9:19 on Dec. 17 against the San Antonio Rampage. Two days after Christmas, he set the Griffins record for the fastest goal to start a period when he scored just 10 seconds into the third period of a game in Cincinnati. He also has a team-high eight-game point-scoring streak and enjoyed a stretch of nine goals in nine games.
He recorded as many goals in 53 games last year as he did in 9:19 of one game this season. He chuckles if you mention it to him that way, but a circumstance for which he credits patience and awaiting his opportunity.
Now everyone has to be patient, as there will be plenty more opportunities for Nathan Robinson.