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Why Maple Leafs’ Nick Robertson refuses to dial back his intensity

TORONTO – Summoning intensity has never been an issue for Nick Robertson, a miracle child born a dangerous three months early, on September 11.

“I was premature-born on 9/11/01, when the country was in havoc,” a wide-eyed Robertson would explain at his first Toronto Maple Leafs development camp.

To a great extent, Robertson’s white-knuckle birth story has informed his life story.

It’s something the prized prospect reflected on again Friday, the eve of his 20th birthday, and something he recently travelled to New York City to unpack. Robertson was one of a number of 9/11 newborns CBS interviewed for a television special that will air Saturday.

The tale goes like this.

As the U.S. East Coast is under terrorist attack, Hugh Robertson stares at his miniature newborn son inside a California neonatal intensive care unit.

Baby Nick is the size of an eggplant after a brief 28 weeks in utero. He’s struggling on life support. Does Hugh agree to take Nick off? Will the boy survive? And if so, will Nick face a lifelong disability as a result of this traumatic entrance?

Nick has already been pumped with three shots in a desperate attempt to get enough oxygen into his lungs and his brain. All three attempts to save his fragile life failed.

“It’s up to him,” Nick once recalled, thinking of his father.

“They said, ‘The fourth one, this could kill him or make him live.’ They hadn’t tried it, and the likelihood of it working was very slim. Thank God, it worked.”

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Baby Nick, attached to a labyrinth of tubes, would remain breathing in that hospital until American Thanksgiving, Hugh visiting him every morning until he figured it safe to take a break.

In an encore of horror, Nick contracted a case of pneumonia while Hugh was vacationing.

“That was very scary. He had to come back from Hawaii or wherever he was. That was a life-or-death situation because it’s hard when you’re younger,” Robertson said.

“That birth story kinda forms me to the person I am: Never take anything for granted.”

A morning skate at Toronto’s practice facility, a late-afternoon scrimmage with prospects all carrying less expectation, and a viewing of himself on national television – that’s how Robertson will celebrate the end of teenagehood.

“I’m looking forward to seeing myself on TV and see how I did,” Robertson said Friday, his fresh face now ringed with a goatee.

With Robertson — so laser-focused on sticking in the NHL that he missed out on Team USA world junior gold medal run in January — there is no “off” position on the motivation switch.

He’s tracking his dream down like a bounty hunter.

“I can’t tell you what a dialled-back Nick Robertson looks like,” says Robertson, with nary chuckle or a wink.

“Instead of dialing it back, I dialled it in even more, so that everything’s precise.”

Robertson’s nutrition, his training regimen, his sleep cycle, his elevated leadership role as the young Leaf maybes fly to next week’s Traverse City rookie tournament — the 2019 second-round pick tackles everything with a perfectionist’s precision.

“Nick is special in the sense of his intensity and the willingness to want to be perfect and great in every aspect of his life,” says Hayley Wickenheiser, the club’s senior director of player development.

“Actually, for Nick, one of the secrets for him might be to dial it back at times a little bit and to just relax more into who he is as a person and as a player.

“I talk a lot with him about easy speed. Let the game come to you. Don’t force it. And really growing into who he is as a person [and] as a player is going to help him be more effective.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Just because Robertson appreciates Wickenheiser’s advice and cherishes her mentorship doesn’t mean he’s ready to ease off the gas.

“I think I’ve heard it my whole life — to dial it back. And I always told them: ‘I’ll dial it back once they know where I stand in my career,’ ” Robertson says.

“Now that I’m getting older, I think it’s more and more close to accomplishing my goal, which is to play full-time for the Leafs.”

That phenom who lit the Ontario Hockey League on fire with 55 goals in just 46 games during the 2019-20 campaign, then leapt straight into the NHL bubble and scored his first (and only) Leafs goal in the 2020 post-season?

He got derailed, mentally and physically, last season, moving away from his parents in the thick of a pandemic and getting double-whammied by crummy luck and harsh reality.

Bad things, they say, come in threes. Robertson suffered an injury before January’s training camp, another one 140 seconds into his NHL regular-season debut, and yet another as a Marlie.

Robertson’s once-sturdy confidence took the brunt; he began to question his process and alter his routines.

“If I was confident, I would’ve had no issues,” Robertson says.

“I want to gain my confidence. I want to gain my scoring touch back. My rhythm, my energy, my confidence, my everything — I want that where it needs to be.”

Robertson registered but one assist in six Leafs appearances and five goals and 16 points in 21 contests for the Marlies.

“Stepping out of junior into the American League, I think he himself saw that the hockey was a lot better than he anticipated. And some of the things you can do in junior you can’t get away with at the next level,” Wickenheiser explains.

“While he has a full package of skill, the next step for him is to implement it in pressure situations and play within the context of having four other very good players on the ice with him.”

While initially the departure of left wing Zach Hyman should’ve widened the door for the offence-minded Robertson to crack the Leafs’ top six, GM Kyle Dubas signed forwards Michael Bunting, Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase — more roadblocks the prospect must hurdle to earn shifts in the show.

If anyone is up for the challenge, ready to buck some odds, it’s the 2001 baby born too early and determined not to make it too late.

“First off, I’m healthy, right?” says the birthday boy.

It’s 9/11, and all candles are lit.

“I’ve always had that motor going 100 per cent, all the time,” Robertson says.

“But I think that’s just how I was born, how I was supposed to be.”

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Written by Sportsnet

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