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Setbacks couldn't sever Robson's NHL aspirations

Newest Wild goaltender overcame injuries, roadblocks on way to NHL contract

by Phil Ervin /

ST. PAUL -- Six-year-old Mat Robson, his father Stephen and the rest of Mat's select hockey team stared all around the rink in Mississauga, Ontario, but their goaltender was nowhere to be found.

Turns out the kid never showed up for practice. So who got to strap on the pads instead? The coach's son, of course.

Robson hasn't taken them off since.

"I just decided to go in net," Robson smiled Monday. "I don't think (my dad) wanted me in net very much, but I ended up falling in love with the position.

"I never looked back."

Robson's life has been a series of unexpected turns since the very beginning. But Monday, finally, a stage went according to plan when the 22-year-old goaltender from the University of Minnesota signed a two-year, entry-level deal with the Wild.

Tweet from @mnwild: "You're official." Welcome aboard, @matrobson1!

The NHL was always the ultimate objective, even after injuries -- including a frightening skate blade to the neck -- sidetracked Robson's junior career in Canada. After a 1 1/2-year suspension from the NCAA. Even the last stanza of Robson's pre-professional years went way off script this past weekend when the Golden Gophers fell to Notre Dame in the Big Ten Tournament, ending their season but officially opening up Robson's NHL free agency.

"That's the word: adversity," Wild General Manager Paul Fenton said after showing Robson around Xcel Energy Center and the Wild offices Monday. "I'm really impressed with the way he's handled adversity. As a goaltender, sometimes they have quirkiness to them or what have you, but for Mat, it just seems like whatever obstacle, whatever hurdle he had to get by, he was able to do it."

Having the friendly, well-spoken 22-year-old in their backyard the past two years allowed Fenton and his staff ample opportunity to watch Robson befuddle opponents. College free-agent scout Brian Hunter visited 3M Arena at Mariucci about five times, and Fenton himself watched Robson in person on four occasions.

Fenton also got an up-close-and-personal look at Robson during last summer's development camp. Between that and scouting Gopher games, Fenton, Hunter, Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason and goaltending development coach Frederic Chabot all walked away convinced Robson would be a great addition.

During his junior season at Minnesota, Robson went 14-12-4 with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in 31 games, leading the Big Ten Conference with 950 saves.

"A little bittersweet," Robson said in reference to the Gophers' 2-1 overtime loss to the Fighting Irish in Saturday's Big Ten tourney semifinal. "I wish we were still playing in our college season, but ... I'm just very excited to be staying in Minnesota."

It's both a conclusion and a beginning in what's been a winding, at times tumultuous journey.

Video: Mat Robson on signing with Wild

Robson was born and raised in Mississauga, growing up in a hockey family in a hockey city. He compares the Toronto suburb to St. Paul in relation to the Twin Cities -- smaller, but more homey.

"All my best friends are back home," Robson said. "We grew up playing hockey together. This has been a dream of ours, and now I get to realize it."

His dad coached him through the early part of his childhood, his older sister Sarah played college pucks at Brown University, and brother Alyn, younger than Mat by a year, recently wrapped up a standout Junior A career of his own.

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Mat Robson played junior A for a stacked 1996 Toronto Marlboros team that included future first-round NHL Draft picks Connor McDavid, Dylan Strome, Sam Bennett and Joshua Ho-Sang. Robson was one of 14 players from that team to sign an Ontario Hockey League Major Junior contract.

Eight minutes into warmups of his first exhibition game of the 2012-13 season with the Peterborough Petes -- against Mississauga, no less, with several family members in attendance -- Robson broke his kneecap on a non-contact play. That kept him out half the season, after which he was assigned to the Ontario Junior Hockey League's Lindsay Muskies.

"Just a mess," Robson said.

The next season brought new hope and new opportunity -- until a scary collision in an intrasquad scrimmage during preseason training camp. His teammate's feet flipped up into the air, and one of his skates knocked Robson's helmet off and caught the goaltender inches from his throat.

"Just another freak thing," Robson said.

Those were dark days, Robson said. His father and mother, Helen, stayed supportive and made sure Mat didn't lose hope while he sat at home and recovered from yet another setback.

His return a month later brought with it another OJHL assignment. In the midst of his draft year and not receiving a shake at the Major Junior level, he and his family began exploring the NCAA route to prepare him for the highest level.

There was just one problem: Robson wasn't eligible.

He'd played in exhibition games in the OHL, which the NCAA considers a professional league because it includes players on NHL contracts. He appealed and was handed a 1 1/2-year suspension, the first year of which he served redshirting at Clarkson College. Rather than miss more time, he returned to junior hockey and played with the British Columbia Hockey League's Penticton Vees in 2016-17, going 35-13-0 with a 1.94 goals-against average and leading his team to the 2017 BCHL Fred Page Cup.

That brought attention from more Division I colleges, and Robson chose the State of Hockey.

"That was a no-brainer to come to one of the best programs in the country," Robson said.

It was an arduous road. But it ended up for the best, Robson says. He'll even earn his degree in business from Minnesota this spring.

"From a young age, starting out at 16, kind of going through a rollercoaster of junior hockey, off to college, back to junior and finally finding a home in Minnesota, it's just prepared me for ups and downs," Robson said. "Whatever's put in front of me, we're going to find a way to work through it. It's made me a stronger person, and it's taught me a lot about myself and how much I love to play this game. I wouldn't change a thing, and it's gotten me to where I ultimately wanted to be."

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Said Fenton: "Just to watch his calm demeanor, it's really the kind of goaltender we've been looking for."

The Wild will use the first year of Robson's contract to keep him in the NHL for the rest of the season, Fenton said. After learning from the likes of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock, Robson is expected to spend next season in the American Hockey League, competing with Kaapo Kahkonen for the Iowa Wild's starting spot in 2019-20.

It's a challenge for which Robson feels steeled.

"I don't think I've taken it all in yet," he said. "I'm sure it'll eventually sink in. ... You want to go somewhere you can grow. I'm looking forward to just diving right into things and learning as much as I can this year.

"It makes it all worth it, all the pain and the hard times, obviously. I've got to thank my mom and my dad for keeping my spirits up through some of those years and telling me 'you're going to come back.' ... Just going through all of it made me ... realize how much hockey means to me.

"It's made me who I am."


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