Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
Being a billet family in the WHL affords fans the opportunity to welcome players to their communities and into their homes from Brandon straight through to the Pacific Northwest. The behind-the-scenes bond the families experience with the player aren’t often too widely publicized, but for the Robertson family, their experience has provided dividends ever since.
When they opened their home to the Edmonton Oil Kings near the start of the decade, through their front door walked the 6-foot-4, 216-pound frame of Griffin Reinhart.
Not yet old enough to be a part of the team, a young Matthew Robertson would watch Griffin and his older brother Tyler play a role in the team’s run during the 2013-14 WHL Regular Season, eventually capturing both the Ed Chynoweth Cup and the Memorial Cup.
Now, Robertson is reminded of those moments each time he steps inside the Oil Kings’ locker room. He also wants more than anything to recreate those memories with his extended family and brothers on the ice.
“The legacy that was left behind when they won the Memorial Cup; it’s something that we want to achieve again,” Robertson said.
With Tyler having moved on to play hockey at the post-secondary level and Reinhart playing professionally, Matthew has been the next in line from the household to suit up for his hometown Oil Kings. He’s also drawing significant interest from NHL scouts ahead of the 2019 NHL Draft, ranked 26th among North American skaters.
The similarities between Reinhart and Robertson grow with each passing day. Both were made top 10 selections at the WHL Bantam Draft by the Oil Kings and they each forged their own path to the team’s leadership group early in their WHL careers, with Griffin being named captain and Robertson earning an ‘A’ on his jersey for this season.
“We made him a leader this year because he is a leader in our dressing room and on the ice,” said Oil Kings General Manager Kirt Hill. “For an 18-year-old being a leader in our league, it’s not easy to do, but that just shows the maturity.
“For him, it’s just playing his game and not getting caught up in all the extra things that go with the season.”
Coincidentally, the ‘A’ on his chest this year was also beside his name when NHL Central Scouting released their list of ‘Players to Watch’ early in the season. Robertson said the idea of him being ranked that high was ‘cool’, but maintained he never thought of himself as a high-end prospect until recently.
“I try to keep it in the back of my mind to not let it affect my game at all,” Robertson said.
While his brother was on the championship-winning squad, Robertson is helping to boost the Oil Kings after some tough results in recent seasons. A rookie campaign that saw him post 24 points (7G-17A) in 67 games provided a full-season glimpse of what he can accomplish.
The 2018-19 season saw Robertson contribute 33 points (7G-26A) in 52 games as the Oil Kings returned to the WHL Playoffs. Making a deep run of their own, Robertson contributed eight points (4G-4A) in 16 games as they advanced to the Eastern Conference Championship.
It was a big step forward, but a process that isn’t quite finished either for the younger Robertson.
“Our team’s turned around quite a bit,” Robertson said. “We’ve had a lot of change in the organization itself, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Hill, who previously worked with the WHL as the Manager of Player Development and Recruitment as well as the Director of Hockey Operations, said that was something special about what Robertson has done since entering the league.
“This year so far, you could just see his maturity for a younger player in the league,” Hill said. “He was playing close to 30 minutes a game last year as a 16-year-old and handled it with ease. He has such good poise with the puck out there.
“For him with his size and his ability to play and today’s quick environment, I think that makes him a special player.”
A former amateur scout with the Chicago Blackhawks as well, Hill held the position that will critique Robertson the most over the coming season. To prove himself worthy of a top selection, Hill said consistency was the easiest route to success.
“Teams only watch you so much; they’ve got to watch everybody,” Hill said. “You want to be as consistent as you can so you’re catching everybody on the right night.
“That’s how a lot of these guys become high-end prospects because their consistency is incredible and ability to be an impact player every night is incredible.”
It was good for Robertson’s stock then that he gave scouts a few more chances to watch him this summer. Named to Hockey Canada’s roster for the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Robertson played a strong role on home ice as Canada won the gold in Edmonton.
It’s now a memory that will stay with him forever and another example of why Robertson deserved to be ranked so highly among his peers.
“Playing in front of friends and family, getting to play against some of the best players in the world, it’s something you don’t get to do very often,” Robertson said.
Soon enough, Robertson will continue to play in front of friends and family, even back again at Rogers Place as a member of a visiting team or with his hometown Oilers. To him, it doesn’t matter, but he’s prepared a confident of the journey ahead.
“He’s such a rounded player, his overall maturity level people wouldn’t know he’s a 18-year-old junior hockey player when you’re talking to him,” Hill said. “He’s the kind of kid that you know that every time he comes to the rink, you know he loves the game because he’s enjoying being there.”