NHL star Jason Robertson proud of short time in Niagara with IceDogs
Written By Brandon Caputo of the Armchair GM’s Sports Network
Jason Robertson has been overachieving his entire hockey career, working just that much harder than his contemporaries at every level he played at, which has now made him a household name at the highest level in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Originally a 4th round pick in the 2015 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Priority Selection draft, the now Dallas Stars superstar had a career breakout season in 2022-23 eclipsing the 100-point mark for the first time, now playing in his 6th NHL season. Robertson credits this success to the time he spent in the OHL, having increased his production throughout his four year junior hockey career.
“Well, I definitely got older and wiser. The experience and confidence you get going through that helped but pretty much evolving from a kid to a young man in those stages” Robertson said. “To have that in terms of physically, but on the ice developing your skills; every year I started getting more opportunity and the ability to play higher in the lineup with more ice time.
Robertson eventually heard his name called at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft when he was selected in the second round, 39th overall by the Dallas Stars, following an 81-point campaign with his then team the Kingston Frontenacs, capping it off with 18 points in 11 playoff games for their run that 2016-17 season.
Getting acquainted in Niagara
Credit: Ian MacAlpine/Postmedia Network
On November 20th, 2019 Robertson was dealt to the Niagara IceDogs along with defenceman Jacob Paquette in exchange for defenceman Billy Constantinou, forward Ian Martin and 11 future OHL Priority Selection draft picks, one of the most historic blockbuster deals made in Ontario Hockey League modern history, which is still referred to this day.
Robertson reflected on that event, having spent his entire three year OHL career with the Kingston Frontenacs and not knowing what to expect when he got down to Niagara but being pleasantly surprised.
“It was a great transition for me when I got traded and I remember realizing that I had to move from team to team but also from city to city” Robertson said. ” I didn’t know much about Niagara other than the rink at Meridian Centre, which I thought was an awesome place.”
“I ended up having fantastic billets who are going to be at the game tonight (February 6th, 2024 in Buffalo) and still keep in touch with them” Robertson said. “I developed a lot of friendships on that team which will last for a long time. It was a great year and I’m proud that I was a member of the Niagara IceDogs,” Robertson said.
A proud season with the IceDogs
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Following his move to Niagara, Robertson picked right back up where he left off with Kingston amassing an astonishing 79 points in only 38 games, which combined with his 38 points in 24 games previously, led him to the scoring title in the OHL that season. Along with the scoring title, Robertson was also awarded the Red Tilson Trophy; an annual award given to the league’s most outstanding player as voted by the writers and broadcasters.
Robertson is proud of that season individually but credits the Niagara Region for making his transition so much fun thanks to many fun win nights down at the Meridian Centre. “It was just getting there, the whole city and region got behind us playing and had pregame parties in front of the arena for the playoff games” Robertson said. “Just the atmosphere, we were such a good and deep team that everyone was excited to show up and we were ready to put on a show for them.”
The Red Tilson Trophy recipient wishes that his team would have been able to finish the job for the hungry IceDogs fanbase, having been upset in the second round of the playoffs to the Oshawa Generals. Although, he still couldn’t pick just one memory or moment that he enjoyed the most, as it was such a special season in his hockey career that he still reflects on today.
“I can’t really pick one moment but playoffs were awesome and just playing on that team and the whole city was behind us. I never knew anything about St. Catharines going in about how passionate the fanbase was there but it was awesome” Robertson said. “Unfortunately we didn’t finish the job like we wanted to for them but that’s junior hockey, there’s only one team left standing at the end of the season and it’s so competitive.”
Longtime IceDogs play-by-play broadcaster Steve Clark speaks highly of Robertson on and off the ice, having called his games for YourTv Niagara during that 2018-19 season he spent with Niagara.
“When you take a look at the amount of points he put up in the 38 games he was with Niagara. If you averaged those out throughout the whole season, he led the league in scoring so that’s how proficient he was” Clark said.
“But what I saw from Robertson in terms of the pro game readiness was how effortless it looked for him and how it seemed that the game slowed down for him when he had the puck.”
“He had that ability to do a lot more times in a shorter amount of time than a lot of your average or good OHL players would do” said Clark. “Even though his skating wasn’t his best asset, he still moved fluidly and he already had the size and absolute rocket of a shot that he could unload on the powerplay or at even strength. He really was the total package; there are guys who just look like pro’s and Jason was one of those guys.”
Remaining humble from junior hockey to pro hockey
Credit: Andy Nietupski/Texas Stars
As Robertson transitioned to pro hockey beginning in the 2019-20 season, the talented forward knew that his time spent in the OHL would help with the grind of a travel schedule in the American Hockey League with the demands of the games you played in a short amount of time with the long bus trips.
“Well the amount of games definitely helps, you don’t really get that anywhere else coming up. In college they only play about 30 games so you get that advantage with playing in junior hockey and the OHL specifically” Robertson said. “As well as the 7-game playoff series gets you prepared well for the grind of the playoffs at the NHL level.
“During my first year in the American Hockey League, the junior hockey schedule got me ready for that. If you’re going right from the OHL straight to the NHL without any AHL games it’s big transition but if you’re ready for that challenge it is possible if you’re willing to put in the hard work and the long hours to claw your way there.”
For Robertson, it was the passion for the game which helped drive him to pursue an eventual career as a pro hockey player. “Personally just working hard at what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an OHL player, when I kind of realized when I wanted to be a professional player, then the NHL eventually and keep working hard through the ranks at whatever level I was at in that present moment” he said.
Steve Clark also talked about the hard journey Robertson took as a driving force in how he molded himself as a person and a player who was driven to succeed. “The journey he took was astounding as he wasn’t a first round pick, he was a fourth round pick. He had to work hard to earn his spot, to excel, and to become that centerpiece trade acquisition that there were nine draft picks traded to Kingston for him” Clark said.
“He then became somebody who was a star on a contending team and excelled the rest of the way and then he didn’t just jump right into the NHL. There were some questions about his skating so he went down to the Texas Stars and earned his keep there before coming up to the NHL, having earned his spot there and then all of a sudden the light went on and he had that breakout season that players dream of when they were kids.”
Clark also pointed out that Robertson’s humble attitude and mindset set him apart from the pack even as a mature young man in the OHL.
“It all goes back to what he did every single year to get to that point and also he was a very grounded player. He came across as a very humble person, he was very polite, and he always shook Al Galloway’s (a member of the Your TV broadcast team) hand after any intermission or postgame interviews, always” Clark said emphatically.
“I think he did that with almost all interviews he did even on the road, so he respected the game and the people in it. He never got that big ego, he just put his head down and be a pro and that’s what got him to where he is today.”
Rise to NHL stardom
Credit: Associated Press via Frank Franklin II
Once he became a full-time NHL player during the 2020-21 season, Robertson began to add more layers to his game other than just his gifted scoring ability, which his now head coach Pete DeBoer spoke highly of as he’s seen the growth in all areas and the drive to be the best, not just speaking it with words.
“I think he’s added layers to his game beyond scoring that you need to help you win. We saw that in the playoffs last year. His best series for us was against Vegas in the conference final, which for me is a great layer for him to his game that he can produce in the toughest times against the best teams” DeBoer said.
“We want him to continue building off of that which I think was a little bit of a nock on him early in his career but he’s a student of the game. Jason is the last guy off the ice, he wants to stay out there and get better everyday. All of those things are great for a coach like myself to have in a player.”
The Dallas Stars head coach went on to say that he believes Robertson’s tough path through his hockey career has helped shape him into being a person with that never-ending drive to always want to get better at his craft.
“I think Jason is one of those guys who has been underrated his entire career. I remember when he went to the OHL in the draft, he wasn’t a first round pick. Next thing you know he’s leading the league in scoring and putting up all kinds of numbers and dominating the league” Deboer said.
“It was the same thing when he got the NHL, he wasn’t a first round pick here either so he’s a guy who’s really embraced that role of people underrating him or selling him short and achieving much more.”
A lasting legacy
Credit: Mercedes Robertson
Robertson says that although he only spent a year in Niagara playing a total of 48 games between the regular season and playoffs, he still keeps in touch with some of the guys who are still playing around the NHL. Although he admits that it can be challenging with everyone going through their own paths in life.
“Well it’s hard to keep in touch with everyone as we all go our separate ways but definitely if you meet up in-person when you’re playing against each other” Robertson said. I talked with Matt Brassard over the summer and saw Jack (Studnicka) when he was with Vancouver as well so if you can say hello it’s great but it was a fun season with a great group of guys that I’ll take with me forever. My billets still talk with me and they come to all my closer games, they’ll go to my brother’s (Nick Robertson) games in Toronto.”
Steve Clark ended by saying that current and future IceDogs players should look up to a guy like Robertson on what it takes to make it at the next level if you really want to do this as a career in pro hockey.
“If I was talking to some of the players from the Niagara IceDogs now who have NHL aspirations, I would say there’s so many great captains to look up to” Clark said. Jason Robertson didn’t have the opportunity to be the IceDogs captain during his short time in Niagara but he was a leader and was a model of how to carry yourself and how to work hard as a professional.”
“That to me is his enduring legacy outside of averaging over two points a game with the IceDogs and becoming the OHL’s leading scorer it was how he carried himself. Somebody who was built like a pro and also respected the game and knew he had to work on things. Watch this guy, watch how he operated on the ice, watch how unselfish he was, how much credit he gave his teammates. All of those things made him so special in his short time in Niagara.”
The former OHL scoring leader directed his final thoughts and advice to those young aspiring hockey players, which was a simple message: work harder.
“It’s not going to be easy, you can’t expect it to come. Especially if you’re a lower round draft pick, you’ve got to step up. It’s certainly not as easy as being a top end guy or highly touted draft pick, you have to work hard, be focused, and go at it” Robertson said. “You can’t sit back and wait for it to happen because it may never if you don’t put everything you have into this.”