By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.comColby Robak
walked into the plaza level of BankAtlantic Center last week then through the entrance way at section 101 leading to the arena and its more than 19,000 seats.
Robak stood silent, taking the enormity all in, before slowly turning his body to look behind him and to the side. “This is big,” he said.
Big when you’re used to playing in a 5,100 seat arena in Brandon, Manitoba. Bigger when you consider where the Panthers 19-year-old prospect is from.
Robak’s hometown? Gilbert Plains, Manitoba.
Number of stop lights? Zero.
Nearest big city: Winnipeg, just 232 miles away.
“It’s a small community,” said Robak of Gilbert Plains. “There’s one main street. It’s about a block long. And that’s it. There’s a field in my backyard. It goes almost as far as you can see, pretty much. It’s like living on a farm.”
Located between the Riding Mountains to the south and the Duck Mountains to the north, tiny Gilbert Plains has produced two NHL players. Blaine Stoughton, a first-round draft pick in 1973 who played eight seasons, and goalie Ronald Loustel, who allowed 10 goals in his only NHL game during the 1980-81 season.
Now comes Robak, who appears to have the size (6-3, 195 pounds) and skill (42 points and a plus-30 last year in Brandon) to make Gilbert Plains and the Panthers proud.
Drafted by the Panthers in the second round (46th overall) at last year’s Entry Draft – and known at that time as the kid who left the draft after the first round to return home to attend his high school graduation - Robak arrived in South Florida last week to work with strength and conditioning coach Andy O’Brien and to get a taste of what could be in the future. And it’s something Robak admits he’s thought about since he was a kid in Gilbert Plains.
“You grow up watching hockey,” Robak said. “It was like, ‘Yeah, I want to play hockey. I want to play hockey in the NHL.’ ”
So far Robak’s vision has stayed on track. In his three seasons playing for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League (WHL), Robak’s numbers have increased each season. From two goals in 2006-07 to 13 this past season, to a minus-6 in 2007-08 to a plus 30 this year, from 12 points back in 2006-07 to 42 this past season.
None of this should be a surprise. Robak has been playing since he was a kid, first at the local skating rink – where a caretaker holds the key and lets you in whenever you want – and then in the nearby town of Dauphin.
“I played some of my minor hockey in Dauphin,” Robak said. “It took three towns to make one team, and we barely made a team. When they started struggling to make a team, I had to travel two hours away to a town called Russell.”
Drafted in the fourth round (77th overall) by Brandon in the WHL bantam draft, Robak’s game has steadily improved over the past three seasons. He credits his success this past season in part to defensive partner Keith Aulie and coach and GM Kelly McCrimmon.
“Keith’s been in the league four years and he’s grown so much,” Robak said. “He played world juniors and he helped me a lot during the season. And Kelly McCrimmon is a great coach, been in the league a long time, and knows what he’s talking about and knows how to develop players.”
Robak’s main goal this past season was to become a better defenseman and become a bit more of a physical presence.
“I was a minus-6 (in 2007-08) and I wasn’t very happy,” Robak said. “So this year I just wanted to be a better defensive player but still put up the points, and I ended the season plus-30 with 42 points. So I thought it was kind of a breakthrough year.”
As far as throwing his size around a little more?
“Growing up everyone has told me to be more physical,” he said. “But you run over a kid in minor hockey when you’re so much bigger than him and you’re a bully. It wasn’t my style. But I’ve been a little more aggressive and it’s something I’ll work on.”
With the Wheat Kings hosting the Memorial Cup next spring, Robak said his goal is to have another “breakthrough season and be one of the leaders on the team and be one of the guys everyone looks up to.”
And said Robak, while sitting at BankAtlantic Center, “I'll be here one day.”