Four games were enough for Nick Robertson, who is one of the NHL’s few players of Filipino descent, to believe he belongs in the big leagues. The Maple Leafs rookie scored a goal while averaging 12:05 in ice time during Toronto's qualifying-round loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets in August.
In the months after the Game 5 defeat, Robertson, who was named the OHL’s most sportsmanlike player after scoring a league-leading 55 goals and 86 points in 46 games with Peterborough last season, remained in Toronto fine-tuning his game in preparation for 2020-21.
“The time and space are limited, and now it's just a matter of taking the time to really focus on things I need to work on to be effective at that level season,” Robertson said.
Part of the work was adjusting his equipment. The native of Sierra Madre, Calif., tinkered with everything from his skates and gloves to his sticks in an effort to gain an edge.
“I used a pretty long stick in the OHL, and going into the NHL and I realized even the minor inch off the stick can make the biggest difference in your hand placement," Robertson said. "I'm still playing around with sticks and changing sticks up.
"(Cutting an inch off) changes how far away the puck is from my body. If you cut it shorter, it goes closer to your body. It could be a stiffer stick if you cut it shorter, but it's closer to my body so I can get more weight on it. I just feel like I have better puck control and that's basically what I'm going for.”
Adjusting his equipment isn’t the only change Robertson has had to make. The COVID-19 pandemic has also forced the 2019 second-round pick to make alterations to part of his off-ice routine. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound left winger – along with older brother, Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson – had a habit of shaking hands with members of the media following interviews. “Every interview can be a little repetitive with answers, and one way to distinguish yourself is shaking the guy or girl’s hand so after every interview (Jason) and I were shaking everyone’s hand, just the polite thing to do, it’s how we were raised and obviously I’ll continue to do that,” Robertson said.
“(Jason) obviously started it, but the idea, I am pretty sure, my family just wanted us to do it and we just did it. If I don’t do it after an interview or something, I feel off later. I think shaking hands after is just the right thing to do.”
With several months to reflect on his brief NHL experience, Robertson managed to find some positives out of the unique situation created by COVID-19.
"I was definitely thrown into the fire, but I think I handled it pretty well,” he said. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger and even faster since then. It’s all confidence, and I think if I have the confidence, everything will come my way. It was a great experience for me for sure and it’s an experience that anybody in my 2019 draft year who didn’t play would die for. I have that experience over others and it's definitely helping me.”
It's been tough to crack the Leafs talented and deep lineup this season, so Robertson has spent most of the year with the team's AHL affiliate, scoring a goal and six points through seven games. When he does make the leap to the NHL, he won’t be satisfied with just earning a regular roster spot.
“I want to be an impactful player," he said. "I want to come in and do my role, play well, produce and also bring that energy.”
Robertson, who has Filipino ancestry, is also hoping to do his part as an NHL role model for minorities. “I want to be a role model not only for an Asian (person), but anyone of a different color as well,” he said.
Robertson, whose mother, Mercedes, was born in Manila, believes one way to get minorities and people of color more interested in the game is through social media.
"In the NFL and NBA you see the players feel comfortable (showing) their personalities,” he said. “If hockey were to do expose more personalities, and have players be more of a social-media ambassador, that can promote the game whether it's for race or just the game itself. It’s a great way, a great tool, to kind of expose what hockey has to bring.”