FATHER KNOWS BEST
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Laverne and Verold Robinson have long known that their son was going to be a hockey player.
"My dad told me that I started to skate about the same time I started to walk," says Nathan Robinson, the fleet-footed Detroit Red Wings prospect who is now in his second season with the Griffins.
Actually, Mr. Robinson waited until his son was two years old before he helped him lace up skates.
"He put me out there and I was pretty much on my own, right from the get-go," Robinson says. "People couldn't believe it. It seemed weird to see this two-year-old on the ice when older kids were falling and using pylons. Even the zamboni driver was asking about me.
"I guess that's when my dad knew I was going to be a hockey player."
Robinson, who will turn 22 on New Year's Eve, was born near the outskirts of Toronto Scarborough, Ontario to be precise but he grew up two hours east in Kingston.
Although he was never anywhere close to being one of the biggest kids on the team, he was always one of the fastest skaters and one of the most determined. Whether he was playing bantam hockey or street hockey, he played like it was all that mattered.
"I always had this intensity, this feistiness that's still part of my game today," Robinson says. "I've always been like that, even playing street hockey. Of course, I didn't make a lot of friends. We'd play and then I'd call them to play the next day and they wouldn't want to come."
Yes, he admits, there were "situations." But you could hardly blame him when there were snow banks lining the driveway and there was somebody in his way, somebody who was trying to steal the ball.
"I always played like I was playing in the NHL. I'd get mad and get my stick up or hit them in the snow bank. Their moms said I played too rough. But it was just my competitive nature."
His aggressiveness carried over to school.
"The game back then was foot hockey, where you would push a tennis ball with your foot like a stick and you'd put down a couple of hats for goals during recess," Robinson recalls. "I'd finish my hits and if the teacher on duty caught me, I'd end up with my nose against the wall and there went my recess. It was just my natural competitiveness."
He might have been built closer to the ground than most hockey players, but Robinson was blessed with more than enough speed to compensate for his lack of size.
The Robinsons, it seems, have always been good on their feet. Both his parents were athletic his mother actually set high school track records running the hurdles. His 16-year-old sister, Tianna, is no slouch on her toes either. She dances, both jazz and tap.
"It's just God's gift," he says, reflecting on the genesis of his lightning-quick skating ability. "I've always been the first- or second-fastest guy on the team. I think it helped that I did a lot of power skating when I was younger."
Robinson took lessons between the ages of six and 10 from Nancy Brennan, the mother of Kip Brennan (a Los Angeles Kings prospect who, curiously, is better known for what he can do with his fists than with his feet). He'd work on his skating two hours a day, five days a week.
"She's pretty straightforward, sticks to the simple things," he says. "I still go back every summer, helping her out while practicing my footwork. Every summer I go back to Kingston that's my base."
Of course, skating will only get you so far, unless of course you're Kurt Browning or Elvis Stojko. It helps to have good hockey sense, not to mention heart, desire and a willingness to work hard. For inspiration, Robinson had to look no further than his parents.
His mother is a nurse and his father works two jobs. By day, his father is a computer technician for the government. At night, he drives a cab around the streets of Kingston.
"My dad works really hard I definitely respect his job," Robinson says. "Getting up early, 6:30 in the morning, and then driving a cab at night. Sometimes I get worried. I think he's working too hard. I don't want anything happening to him. . . some drunk or idiot doing something stupid behind his back."
Driving a cab enabled "Big V" to pay for hockey for his son, dance lessons for his daughter. "My dad played a little hockey but I don't think his family had the money to support it," Robinson says. "I think that's what he wanted for me. He wanted to give me what he never had the chance to do, and I appreciate that."
Despite the distance between Kingston and Grand Rapids, Robinson's father is a frequent visitor to Van Andel Arena. "He's always been there for me. He's a good father," Robinson says. "He's been my mentor. I wouldn't be this far if it weren't for him and my mother. That's what it's all about."
When Robinson was younger, his dad never hesitated to offer fatherly advice. "If I had a bad game, he'd let me know. He was pretty hard on me to a certain point. He'd say, 'I know you're capable of playing better. Keep working hard.' He got that planted in my head. He might have been a little hard on me at times, but I liked it because I knew he cared."
In juniors, Robinson struggled initially to earn regular ice time on a veteran club that went all the way to the Memorial Cup finals in 1999, but gradually earned more responsibility. By his third year in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), he was playing on the second line and his father saw great things ahead.
"Going into my last year, he said I could lead the OHL in scoring and he'd be disappointed if I finished second," Robinson recalls. "He said, 'Have fun, don't put pressure on yourself and things will work out,' and they did. He's always been right on the nail. I've always told him that he should be a scout."
Obviously, his father sees things that real scouts do not. Robinson was undrafted by the NHL, an oversight that he blames on lack of exposure during his first two junior seasons at the junior level rather than NHL scouts dismissing his talents based on his 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame.
"Size has never been a factor for me I've never really been concerned with it," he says. "It's not like I've ever been intimidated. When you're out there playing, you're too busy concentrating on where you've got to go and what you've got to get done. You're not worried about a big donkey going into the corner with you."
He made a big impression this fall on the Red Wings' brass who kept him in Detroit for most of the exhibition season. "It was pretty cool staying up longer," he says. "At the same time, I knew coming back to Grand Rapids meant that I needed to play like I belong in the NHL. I want to make an impact."
Fifteen games into the current AHL season, Robinson appears to be doing just that. He's already matched his entire goal output (3) for last season (53 games) with the Griffins and his six assists are nearly halfway to his total of 14 from a year ago.
"I'm not satisfied," he says. "There's a lot more work to be done. I'm focused on what lies ahead, what still needs to be done. I realize this is just another stepping stone."
And his father is right there in his corner, reminding him that it will take time. "You've got to be patient," Robinson says. "The more I play, the better I'll get. I've always felt that I could play in the NHL and I will play in the NHL one day."
Robinson knows getting there won't be easy. "It's such a long road. You feel so close but yet it's so far. Detroit does things different than other NHL clubs. They take their time with their prospects and they're winning Stanley Cups, so they know what they're doing."
He doesn't have any trouble visualizing himself playing in the NHL, perhaps because he has an artistic streak. Drawing is a hobby and "a great stress reliever," says Robinson, who is looking forward to his mom bringing his sketch pad to Grand Rapids so he can get busy with the pencil again.
Caricatures and cartoons are his favorite subjects. "When I was in Belleville, the booster club sold some of them at an auction," says Robinson, who admits that art was his favorite subject in school, next to physical education, of course.
Robinson eventually would like to pursue a career in the graphic arts field after his playing days are over. "I always wanted to help design video games. I always found that stuff really interesting. The stuff they do with graphics is unbelievable," he says. "Working for (video game maker) EA Sports would be cool."
For now, however, he's content to bounce through defenders like Sonic the Hedgehog on all cylinders. "Right now it's very important to concentrate on my hockey," he says. "You can only do so much." And then he quickly adds, "I can do anything I put my mind to. Drawing is like hockey. You try not to be intimidated by what you see."