Column: Hockey journey for Stars’ Jason Robertson finally leads back to Staples Center
Hugh Robertson is an avid hockey fan, which isn’t unusual for someone who grew up in Michigan but is less common in Southern California, and he wanted to pass along his love for the game to his five children. He had season tickets to the Kings in the early 2000s and would gather the kids at the family home in Arcadia and take them downtown to Staples Center.
Jason, the second son of Hugh and Philippine-born Mercedes Robertson, remembers his father would turn those trips into fun occasions.
“We’d always go to the Palm [restaurant] and then we’d all go to the Kings games,” Jason said. “We’d go to the games wearing Kings apparel and carrying mini-sticks.”
They’d dash around the concourse during intermission, dodging fans and ushers while playing their own fiercely competitive version of hockey. Eventually, Hugh brought them to skate in Burbank to see if their energy would carry over to the ice. The rest is an improbable story that means Jason won’t need a ticket when he visits Staples Center on Thursday because he will be using the players’ entrance.
The intensity of play and sprinkling of skill the Ducks and Kings showed Tuesday night represented progress for both teams, which they appreciate.
Skating in Burbank and then for travel teams around Southern California — including a stint with the Junior Kings — set Jason on a path that took the family to Northville, Mich., when he was 10 to give him and his brothers Michael and Nick easier access to rinks than they had in Southern California. After a solid progression through junior hockey, Jason was chosen in the second round and 39th overall by the Dallas Stars in the 2017 NHL draft, and he has blossomed into a consistent and productive top-six forward.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pound left wing made his NHL debut on Feb. 13, 2020, and was the runner-up in rookie-of-the-year voting in 2020-21 after he scored 17 goals and had a rookie-leading 28 assists for 45 points in 51 games. His success has carried over to this season with the Stars, who had a rough start while he was recovering from an injury but have recently come alive.
Before Dallas faced Vegas on Wednesday, Robertson had collected seven goals and 18 points in 16 games, and had recorded at least one point in six straight games, helping the Stars win seven in a row and nine of 10. He has played most of the season alongside Roope Hintz and veteran center Joe Pavelski. “We’re just fortunate that everything is clicking right now and pucks are going in, so that’s really great for us,” he said with typical hockey modesty.
Nick, two years younger, was drafted 53rd overall by Toronto in 2019 and played six games for the Maple Leafs last season. His progress was stalled, however, when he fractured his leg in October while playing for Toronto’s American Hockey League farm club. Their sister Brianne is a jiu-jitsu fighter in Southern California. Their older brother Michael briefly played club hockey while studying at USC but chose a career in finance and lives in Barcelona, Spain.
It’s more than a little surreal to Jason that on Thursday he will play an NHL game for the first time in the arena he visited so often as a kid, though he said he’s disappointed by the building’s imminent name change to Crypto.com Arena. “It will always be Staples Center to me,” he said. His family will be in a suite to cheer him on, and he was arranging to buy extra tickets for the overflow. His grandmother lives in Panorama City and he has relatives in La Canada; his parents now live in Sierra Madre.
“It’s all so exciting,” he said during a recent phone conversation.
His favorite King when he was a kid was Jason Allison. “Because his name was Jason. I didn’t know any better,” he said, laughing. Robertson soon learned a lot about the game — and that he had an aptitude for it.
“When I started playing, there was just something that clicked,” he said. “It’s easy for a kid by himself to lose interest, but I had two other brothers and younger sister who were all playing it too. And then eventually you get good at it and it just comes natural and I wanted to keep doing it. I was fortunate to have my whole family behind my back supporting me at such a young age playing hockey. And then you just get more into it and that’s why we moved to Michigan to play hockey, to have that background supporting me.”
Youth hockey has grown considerably in California since the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky in 1988. But hockey remains an expensive sport here, and the absence of Division I college programs and major junior leagues means kids must leave home to take the next step. Robertson says he hopes that will change.
“When I left, it was 2010. When the Kings won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, hockey kind of blew up,” he said. “They have American Hockey League teams now and obviously the three teams [Kings, Ducks and Sharks]. It’s certainly improving, and I’m glad to see that.”
Robertson is believed to be the third player of Filipino heritage to play in the NHL, after Filipino-American Tim Stapleton and Filipino-Canadian Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild. There aren’t many players with Asian heritage in the league, so Robertson stands out. That wasn’t always the case.
“In California, in L.A., there are a lot of Asian people, and when I was playing hockey, there were Asian hockey players. It felt like not a big thing for me growing up,” he said. “But eventually moving to Michigan and going pro, you don’t see that often. It’s definitely something my parents, and especially my mom’s side, they all love to see that I could represent the Philippines as a player.”
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He takes the responsibility seriously. “When I got drafted it really hit me, where my dad and mom were telling me, ‘You are someone kids can look up to, especially with your heritage and where you come from.’ My little brother too,” he said. “He’s going to be up here soon. It’s great for us to try to be good role models for all these little kids who want to play hockey.
“You see athletes and role models that are of your heritage, and you definitely believe that you can do it, that there’s no barrier. It’s definitely great to be an inspiration.”
Not many kids make the jump from playing mini-sticks in an NHL arena to being a star on the ice, making him an inspiration in many ways.
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