A New Path
Netminder Robson Came a Long Way to Minnesota, And Is Making Most of It
On Jan. 20, Mat Robson’s mom Helen, his dad Steven and his older sister Sarah — a Brown hockey alum — were sitting in the stands at Madison Square Garden. They had wanted to visit New York City and had planned the trip regardless of who would serve as Minnesota’s starting goalie.
Several hours before game time they discovered Robson would be starting.
Mat didn’t quite know either, receiving his only hint from Eric Schierhorn’s appearance at Michigan State two nights before. Head coach Don Lucia had said that Schierhorn and Robson would split starts once Robson was eligible, which he had recently become. So on that unseasonably warm Saturday evening, Robson stopped 19 shots at the World’s Most Famous Arena, helping Minnesota to a 2-1 overtime victory over the Spartans.
But at one point, Robson starting for a college hockey team at Madison Square Garden seemed not only inconceivable, but highly improbable. Not only was Robson's path to Minneapolis an arduous one, he was going to a program whose previous Canadian goaltender ever were Frank Pietrangelo in the early 1980s and Murray McLachlan in the late 1960s.
The story began in 2012. Robson signed with a Major Junior team, the OHL's Peterborough Petes, at 16 years old, voiding his NCAA eligibility. He had been drafted in the summer, and 13 of his teammates from the 1996 Toronto Marlboros (Junior A), including Connor McDavid, Darren Raddysh, Sam Bennett and Joshua Ho-Sang, had already signed in the OHL.
“When Peterborough drafted him and wanted to sign him right away, I guess we all go caught up in it,” dad Steven said. “In retrospect as parents, I think if we would've stepped back a minute and looked at the big picture, I'm not sure a lot of us would've made that decision on going to the OHL for sure.”
What appeared like a straight path soon became anything but. Mat broke his kneecap in his first exhibition game of the 2012-13 season and missed half the season. When he returned, the team sent him down to the OJHL. The following year, Mat returned but was cut by a skate and sent back down to the OJHL. He was traded to the Toronto Patriots for the 2014-15 season, joined Clarkson for 2015-16, left for the BCHL in 2016-17 and joined Minnesota at the start of this season.
Mat has already started seven games since regaining his eligibility, including the Gophers' last three.
“In the long run, it's worked out magnificently,” Steven said. “I think he's learned an extreme amount about himself and the process and the whole workings of hockey along the way for sure."
In a 2013 intrasquad game in Peterborough, Robson got knocked to the ice. A player had crashed into the side of the net and was pushed into Robson by a defender. He then flipped and his skates came up, hitting Robson’s helmet off his head.
Mat felt woozy from the impact, but nothing else. The trainer came over and asked what happened.
“I was like, 'Didn't you see, my head hurts obviously, I just took a skate,'” Robson said. “And then he pulled my chest protector down and then realized I was cut open.
“He pressed a towel on my neck and was like, ‘Oh bleep, someone call a doctor.’ So I skated off the ice with a towel on my neck right into the trainer's room for stitches.”
Mat’s mom Helen thought his jugular had burst.
“Looking back at it, I don't think it hurt that much honestly,” Robson said. “It was more the skate impact on the back of my head kind of covered up that pain, but yeah I remember I tried to get back out on the ice but I couldn't really look to the left too well without twitching in my neck, so I was forced to not play for a little bit after that."
He was back on the ice a month later. While his injury didn’t keep him away for too long, it happened nearly a year after Mat broke his kneecap.
“It broke his heart, it really did,” Helen said.
“And us too,” Steven added. “When you see your child just laid out there and his knee's the size of a football and the tears and oh my god is it over. It's heartbreaking, it really is."
Mat’s grandfather works in medicine, giving the Robsons access to Toronto’s best hospitals, medical care, orthopedists and sports medicine professionals. They also turned to his trainer, who helped Mat through nearly 16 weeks of rehab, starting with heel raises all the way up to one-legged bullet squats.
Robson spent the entire time healing at home. His parents spent time with him, lifting his spirits when he couldn’t walk. Helen hung out with him and talked about various topics, while Steven repeatedly told Mat he would recover. His trainer, meanwhile, even helped him conduct upper body workouts while he was in a wheelchair.
“[We made] sure he didn't fall into a depression actually,” Helen said. “He didn't, but we just needed to make sure that he didn't because it's pretty boring just sitting with your legs on a couch day in and day out for a couple months.”
When Mat finally returned, he was sent back down to the OJHL, where he played in six games. The next year, when he returned from the skate cut, he was also sent down to the OJHL, this time playing in 16 games.
But, Mat was also in his NHL Draft year. Not being able to play in the OHL was hurting his chances. So he finally decided on the NCAA.
"The OHL, it's a great league, but I knew that if the opportunity arose where I could go to school and get a scholarship and play in the United States, obviously not a lot of kids come out of Canadian colleges,” Mat said. “So missing my draft year, I figured I'd take the safer route where I'd be able to get my education to fall back on, and then obviously have a really good chance at following my dreams."
But there was the issue of eligibility.
Mat had heard of some goaltenders who had successfully appealed to regain their NCAA eligibility. But there was still a risk Mat wouldn’t win the appeals process, so only a handful of teams contacted him when he was traded to Toronto in 2014-15, even though his .916 save percentage led his team to the OJHL championship and a playoff MVP award.
Clarkson was one of the schools that contacted Mat. He chose the Golden Knights, who handled much of the appeals process.
"It was kind of long and tedious a little bit, a lot of time spent on the phone with the NCAA getting my statement across to them and trying to minimize the penalty,” Matt said. “Obviously, they didn't really budge on their ruling, I'm not really sure how they came up with the ruling but they didn't budge. I guess my appeal, it didn't work to minimize the suspension.”
While Mat’s parents researched the appeals process, they weren’t involved aside from a few questions.
“We didn’t have to work with the lawyers per se, but it was dreadful. A shame for the kids,” Helen said.
The NCAA handed Mat a year-and-a-half suspension.
“Once the decision is made, it's cast in stone,” Steven said. “As much as you have other information or the semantics of something could be interpreted another way. One of the questions said, 'Have you shaken hands with an agent.' And when Mat was playing on that '96 team, we had 60 agents a night because we had Connor McDavid and we had Sam Bennett and we had all those guys. And he was like, 'Yeah, I've shaken hands with agents, to say, "hi I'm Mat Robson."' And I believe that was construed as saying you have a handshake agreement with an agent, which obviously that contradicts NCAA bylaws. So it was really out of our hands the schools did the best they could.”
He spent the 2015-16 season at Clarkson serving the first part of his suspension. He still practiced with the team, but decided it wasn’t the right fit. Not willing to sit out for another six months without playing, Mat returned to juniors and played for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL in the 2016-17 season.
He posted a .930 save percentage through 49 games. The team won the BCHL championship, Mat was named MVP and they eventually lost in the national semifinals. His performance in the BCHL, along with his new eligibility, attracted more schools. He chose Minnesota around Christmas, gravitating toward the school because of its facilities and the city, becoming the Gophers' first Canadian player of any kind since.
"It's kind of cool to be the first Canadian in that long, first Canadian in anything I think in like 10 years. It's cool and that was one thing I knew meant that they really wanted me to come here. It doesn't really matter where I'm from, but it's a little bit of a cool thing to be able to say,” Mat said.
"I wanted to go somewhere where I had a chance to win but also be that X factor that pushes them over the top and brings a national championship to the school."
He spent the first half of the season at Minnesota serving the final portion of his suspension. Mat used that time, as he did at Clarkson and through his injuries, to focus on school, grades, neighbrhood, friends and family.
"Getting away from the rink, it was kind of refreshing,” Mat said. “Obviously I would've rather been at the hockey rink but, I guess to kind of get that time off was nice and it showed me how much the game meant to me as well."
Mat made his Gopher debut Dec. 9 against Ohio State, where he stopped 22 shots and allowed two goals. In his seven games, he has posted two shutouts and holds a .935 save percentage. At the moment, he has wrested the job away from Schierhorn, who had played 98 games in 2 1/2 seasons with the Gophers to that point.
While Robson may not be NHL draft eligible anymore, he hasn’t given up on joining his friends and former teammates in the league. And when Mat was at home recovering from his broken kneecap, or at Clarkson serving his suspension, or in Penticton playing in juniors for the fourth year, his professional hockey dream was his motivation.
“I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and hockey was a way to help me get there and get a good education out of it as well,” Mat said. “I just looked at the bigger picture and worked through it."