Mat Robinson's path to Canadian Olympic hockey team began with Vegas gamble
Undersized defenceman one of several underdog stories on Team Canada
By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports
For many college students, Las Vegas is a popular destination for spring break.
In his senior year at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Mat Robinson decided to head for the bright lights of Vegas, too. But he didn't go there to party by the pool or hit the blackjack table.
The Calgary native, who played four seasons at Alaska-Anchorage, went to try his luck with professional hockey with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL.
"We had been knocked out of the playoffs in the first round," the 31-year-old Canadian men's Olympic team defenceman said. "I don't think you could say I had a great college career, so NHL teams weren't exactly knocking on my door.
"I had an opportunity to see where my game was at, in terms of the pro game. Glen Gulutzan, who now coaches the Calgary Flames, was the Wranglers coach. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity."
Robinson made the most of that opportunity. He scored the game-winning goal and added an assist in his first outing, and was named the game's first star. He finished his four games with a plus-minus rating of plus-three.
Opening in Ottawa
But it didn't matter how well Robinson had performed. He made a decision prior to his brief stint in Vegas, he would return to school and complete the final weeks of his bachelor of science in natural sciences.
"I wanted to make sure I had another avenue in case my hockey career didn't go any further," he explained.
He didn't know exactly what he was going to do with his degree. Robinson figured he had a future as a pharmacist or he could explore the possibility of another career in the medical field.
But those plans were put on hold a few months later. The Ottawa Senators were impressed enough to invite the pint-sized defenceman to their rookie camp. Then, he earned a promotion to the Senators main camp.
Robinson remarked he learned plenty from his short stay in the Senators camp. He learned how high the level of play was, how conditioned NHL players were and that he needed to continue to develop.
So he signed a two-way AHL/ECHL contract with the Senators but was disappointed when he played way more games with the ECHL Elmira Jackals (61) than with the AHL Binghamton Senators (five) in 2009-10. So, Robinson looked to Europe to continue his career.
The knock on Robinson has been his size. He's listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds by Hockey Canada, but his KHL team, CSKA Moscow, published his measurements at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds.
"I felt for myself and for my career the best move was to go overseas," Robinson said.
He landed in Norway, led all defencemen in goals and points and won a league championship. From there, Sweden beckoned. After two successful seasons there, an opportunity opened up with Dinamo Riga in the KHL.
He continued to open eyes in the second-best league. He has scored a remarkable 47 goals in 241 regular-season games with Riga, Dynamo Moscow and CSKA Moscow, including a KHL-leading 14 goals in 2015-16.
His offensive flair and puck-moving ability caught the eye of Canadian Olympic general manager Sean Burke. Robinson will be paired with another underdog story in 37-year-old defenceman Chris Lee.
The two are the only members of the Olympic team who have not had a single shift in the NHL and will be key members of the quick and mobile eight-member defensive unit.
"In general, defencemen don't peak until later in their careers," Robinson said. "I've been given an opportunity to develop and play in all situations at a high level over here."
Robinson's own development and high level have landed him far from the Vegas strip, but right in the middle of the Olympic rings.