ST. PAUL — While the rest of last season's Minnesota Gophers hockey team, we can assume, was glued to the NHL playoffs last month, Mat Robson was proving the old saying true: goalies are a little different.
Robson, who hails from suburban Toronto, and was the first Gophers goalie in more than 30 years from Canada, was paying some attention to hockey, but was watching basketball more intently, living and dying with the fortunes of the NBA's Toronto Raptors.
"The playoff run kind of started after the hockey season, so I was kind of giving it to the guys at the university," Robson recalled last week, during a break in the action at Minnesota Wild development camp. "I’d say ‘We won last night!’ and they’d say, ‘We? You’re not on the team.’ And I’d say, ‘I feel like I’m on the team. The whole city of Toronto’s on the team.’ So it was unbelievable to watch."
He had a number of teammates over to his place near the U of M campus to watch Game Five of the NBA Finals, where the Raptors were within a minute of clinching the title at home, but lost. His heartbreak was short-lived, as the Raptors won Game Six at Golden State, and hauled the NBA crown north of the border for the first time.
"I was like ‘Oh no, this happens to Toronto in every sport, every year. Please don’t be another Leafs run,’" Robson said, recalling the gut-punch of Game Five, and the joy of Game Six. "It was unbelievable seeing the city erupt. But we’re Canadian so it was all picked up, cleaned up, nobody got hurt and you’d say sorry if you bumped into someone."
After a long and winding road to college hockey in Minnesota, Robson was the Gophers' mainstay in goal as a junior last season, seeing action in 31 of the team's 38 games and recording 14 of their 18 wins. With a degree in hand, he opted to make the jump to professional hockey shortly after the college season ended, and signed a two-year pact with the Wild. They kept him up with the NHL team right from the start to give Robson a taste of life at the game's highest level.
"I learned a ton day to day. I would come in, get a workout in before the guys arrived for their morning skate, join them for the morning skate, watch Al (Stalock) and (Devan Dubnyk) take some reps," Robson said. "Whenever Duby felt he was good to go for that night I’d hop in there and take some one-timers."
While he did not dress for any games, in giving Robson time with the NHL club, they burned a year of his contract. So the coming season will be Robson's last under his rookie deal, increasing the pressure on him to prove himself as a pro. He is prepared to be with the Wild's AHL team after training camp.
"I’ll most likely start the season off in Iowa. That’s the plan, to have a great year there," he said. "It’s a contract year for me, so I want to have a big year. Obviously I’m expecting to have a lot of success. You’ve got to believe in yourself and I believe I’m capable of doing that."
Nobody would point to goaltending as the primary reason that the Wild's six-year run of NHL playoff appearances came to an end last spring. Dubnyk's numbers were respectable, but they were also the worst, statistically, of his four full seasons in Minnesota. It would take a dramatic turn over events, like an injury or an absolute collapse by either Stalock or Dubnyk, for Robson to be called up to the Wild next season. But the rookie has made it clear that as nice as Des Moines can be, he eventually intends to be manning the crease 245 miles north of there.
"In no way do I mean this offensively, but I don’t want to be there," Robson said of Iowa. "I want to be here. I want to be up with the team, and I’m going to do everything I can to make that happen. But in the position I play you’ve got to be a realist and you’ve got to wait your turn and work your way up."
Life in Iowa will be just another adjustment that Robson expects to make, on this journey that has been eye-opening since he became a full-time hockey players in March. He said the amount of down time is different, the care with which players tend to their bodies is different, and although the puck is the same size, there's a distinct difference there as well.
"It moves a lot faster. The puck is the same size, but the eyes are looking in different places. The shoulders are dropping at different times. These guys know how to score goals, and they get paid to do it," he said. "I’m just here to stop them, so picking up on these new tendencies that the professionals have gained over the course of their entire career, is going to be huge for my development."
So look for Mat Robson in Iowa. But not for long, if all goes according to his plans.