MINNEAPOLIS -- In an earlier era of Gophers hockey, when the roster was not only all Americans, but -- during long-time coach Doug Woog’s tenure -- was populated exclusively by Minnesotans, it was not uncommon for the Mariucci Arena student section to mix in a little xenophobia with its good-natured harassment of visiting teams.
If a non-American player from Minnesota Duluth or St. Cloud State or North Dakota did something noteworthy or egregious on the ice, the political rally chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” would often fill one end of the rink.
That chant was not heard in Minneapolis on Saturday during a near-upset of Big 10-leading Ohio State. There was nothing but admiration from the home fans as the Gophers’ goalie -- the one with a big, gold maple leaf emblazoned on the right side of his helmet -- made save after save nearly every time the Buckeyes sent a puck his way.
Mat Robson is proudly Canadian and he was something akin to an international man of mystery when he made his first appearance between the pipes for the Gophers in the middle of last season.
The junior arrived from his suburban Toronto hometown (Mississauga, Ontario) via major junior hockey, which typically permanently negates a player’s NCAA eligibility.
A serious injury, a lengthy legal battle with the NCAA to restore some of his eligibility, a stint at a different college in New York and time spent playing lower-tier junior hockey in British Columbia finally led to a mid-season appearance in the Gophers’ crease last season.
If the 40-plus saves he made versus the Buckeyes and the fact that he’s started nine of the team’s 13 games this season are any indication, Robson seems to have finally found a home. And after sitting out more than a year while waiting to be eligible in the NCAA, you’ll never hear Robson grouse about seeing too many pucks in a game.
“It’s very fun, especially to make a big save, but any save feels good,” Robson said. “I’d be lying if I said you don’t look at stats after the game, so facing a lot of shots and not giving up too many goals looks good.”
To major junior, and back
For many Canadian kids (and a growing number of American kids) with dreams of playing in the NHL, major junior hockey is seen as a quick route to playing for a sizeable paycheck. But because major junior players receive a small stipend, they’re considered pros by the NCAA and therefore are ineligible to play American college hockey.
Robson signed a contract with the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League at 16 and played in one exhibition game there, but suffered a knee injury right away that cost him a season. After a change of heart, he and his parents fought a legal battle to get at least some NCAA eligibility back.
The college sports' governing body eventually ruled that Robson could play college hockey, but would lose 1.5 seasons of eligibility, meaning he’d start mid-season as a sophomore.
He enrolled at Clarkson University, a smaller school in a small Upstate New York town (Potsdam, population 16,000) and practiced there for a year. But this kid from Canada’s biggest city missed playing games, and missed the hustle and bustle of a metropolitan area. So he left for another season of lower-level juniors (which don’t affect NCAA eligibility) in Penticton, British Columbia, then got a chance at urban college hockey.
“That was another thing that didn’t make it too hard to leave a school of just over 3,000 kids,” he said of the decision to leave Clarkson. “Great hockey program and great support from their fans, nothing against that. But I just wanted to come to a big city, a big school and enjoy bright lights like at home.”
Chatty in the crease
He plays a style that seems calm and measured, working on positioning that makes saves look routine rather than flashy. But on the inside of the boards and plexiglas, Robson is often the opposite of quiet and reserved.
“There are subtle things me and Rob talk about on the ice,” Gophers defenseman Ryan Zuhlsdorf said. “There are times when he’ll make an amazing save, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, you a bad man’ and he’ll come up with something clever right back at me. Just kind of keeping it light on the ice is always good.”
When he inherited Robson from previous coach Don Lucia, new coach Bob Motzko caught on to the misleading nature of his top goalie’s placid appearance from afar.
“He’s calm and cool, but there’s a fire under him and he knows what he’s doing out there,” Motzko said. “You want a goalie that’s intelligent and reads the play, so as calm and cool as he looks.
"He’s got fire in there and he verbalizes it with his teammates.”
As the first Canadian in the Gophers net since Frank Pietrangelo’s final college start in 1986, Robson also isn’t shy about verbalizing his roots, hence the big gold maple leaf displayed on his headgear.
“I’m proud of where I’m from. Sometimes I hear about it, but I definitely wanted to throw that on my helmet and represent my country,” said Robson, who is an NHL free agent.
He admits that during international tournaments like the World Juniors or the Olympics he hears plenty of good-natured ribbing.
“It’s an enjoyable part of the camaraderie in the locker room,” he said.
Almost as enjoyable as facing (and stopping) pucks by the dozen.
Jess Myers (@JessRMyers) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.