For the third straight season, Mat Robinson’s name is stubbornly present among Dynamo’s top scorers, and the 30-year-old from Calgary is one of the highest-scoring defensemen ever to grace the KHL. However, even the greatest suffer setbacks, and the 2016-17 has not been plain sailing for Mat and his team: Robinson’s goals tally is stuck on three and a glance at the Western Conference table shows the Blue-and-Whites languishing in sixth place.
When the going gets tough, Robinson is an asset to any club. He is not the kind of player that would lose heart during a tricky spell. As KHL hostilities resume after the first in-season break, he faced our correspondent brimming with confidence and determination.
- You spent the first pause of the season with your national team, competing in the Deutschland Cup. What were your impressions of the tournament?
“It was a very happy event for me, and one which fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine – For the first time in my career I took to the ice in the national team’s jersey and played for my country. We put together a great roster and the atmosphere was just awesome. It was a great experience for me, and I am glad I got to play in this tournament.”
- The team had many players from the KHL. Did this help your performance?
“Certainly. It helped a great deal. Often, with the national team, the players come from many different leagues, and then it is hard to quickly find that common language you need on the ice, but since the core of our team was made up of KHL players, we knew each other and had a similar playing style, so it was far easier for us to blend as a team.”
- So you were playing with friends, so to speak.
“I was genuinely very happy to see the guys because some of them were former team mates, like (former Tampa and Buffalo center) Paul Szczechura. He was with me for a season at Dinamo Riga and I know how he moves during the game. It was really cool to be on the ice with him again. There was Neftekhimik’s Geoff Kinrade, and we’d crossed each other’s paths back in our AHL days, so when they made us a defensive pair we could just play the game and enjoy ourselves.”
“It’s true that I am not scoring as often as last season. A year ago I was on fire and everything I tried seemed to come off, but it will be hard to repeat success like that. I just try to help my team in all areas of the ice.”
- What was it like playing under Dave King and Mike Pelino?
“I hadn't worked with these specialists before, so it was great to get acquainted with their systems and get to know their coaching handwriting, so to speak. Dave and Mike have won many titles, have a deep understanding of the game, and give you very clear instructions. They know how to foster a good atmosphere in the team, and my impressions after playing under them are all positive.”
- Were the training sessions tough?
“I wouldn't say they were particularly hard or energy-sapping. The coaches focused on getting us playing as a team as quickly as possible. We had very little time to train, so it was vital that they got the guys who had never played together to find a common language and start winning.”
- Many believe the in-season breaks in the KHL Championship disrupt the rhythm of players and teams. What is your view?
“There are two ways of looking at it. If a team is in the ascendency, winning matches and racking up points, then a break can have a negative impact. On the other hand, if a team is struggling with many injuries, as is the current case with Dynamo, these pauses allow the players to recover and return to the lineup without missing matches. In the end, it all depends on the situation at each club.”
- You now have quite a busy playing schedule. Three games for the national team, then straight back to Moscow for a series of home games. How do you keep up the tempo?
“I can't say the Team Canada games left me very tired. I’ve been feeling very fit, and some of my Canadian team mates were turning out for their clubs the very next day, and had to go straight from the ice to the airport. At least I had a short pause in which to get ready for Dynamo’s games.”
“The KHL is the strongest League in Europe, is constantly improving, and many guys want to play here. When I was in Sweden, my main aim was to get into the League, as it has very high level of hockey and has attracted the finest players. Competition in the KHL is fierce.”
- Dynamo prepared for this season under Sergei Oreshkin’s guidance, and several of your fellow players said he made major changes to the training regime. Was this camp easier than under Harijs Vitolins, for example?
“I wouldn't say it was easier or harder. His system of training was just structured differently. This time we focused on other aspects of training – we spent a lot more time on the ice and in the gym, and there was a lot less running.”
- Do Oreshkin and Vitolins have anything in common in their approach?
“Well, there’s hockey for a start (laughs)! They stick to one playing style, have similar stances on forechecking, and generally see the game in similar ways. They both put the emphasis on teamwork, and this has been Dynamo’s strength for many years.”
- It has been a difficult season so far for your team. Every good run is followed by a bad one. What is missing, and what must Dynamo do to regain consistency?
“In hockey, every detail is important. Every win is made up of many little victories, so we need to stay very focused in every minute of every match, and strive to improve in all aspects of the game. We have a very talented team, but only hard work in training can bring us success. We must improve in powerplay and try to spend more time with the puck in the opposition zone, link up better with the leading players and create more chances. Then the victories will come.”
- How would you rate your own performance over the first half of the season?
“Of course, not everything has been perfect. I always try to give my best, play for the team, and overall my performances this season have not been bad. But there is always room for improvement and there are parts of our game that need work. In this sense, I was helped by the trip with Team Canada for the Deutschland Cup, as that weekend brought me a lot of positive emotions and helped me grow in confidence.”
“For me, our trickiest and biggest games are those against CSKA and Magnitogorsk. These teams differ in style, but both are unbelievably tough opponents.”
- This season you have been creating good chances in pretty much every game, but the goals have dried up. Why is that?
“It’s true that I am not scoring as often as last season. A year ago I was on fire and everything I tried seemed to come off, but it will be hard to repeat success like that. I just try to help my team in all areas of the ice, to create more chances for our forwards, and to be consistent when defending in our zone. I would like to score more often and I’m working on it.”
- And yet you are still Dynamo’s top scorer. How closely do you follow your personal statistics?
“I hardly ever look at them. The figure which occupies us most is the one that says we’re sixth in the Western Conference. A few wins would lift us up the standings, but a few defeats could see us drop out of the playoff places. At times like these, personal stats fade into the background.”
- With your goal against your former employer, Riga Dinamo, on the third of October, you became the highest scoring Dynamo Moscow defenseman of the KHL era, with 30 goals. Did the team celebrate in any way?
“In fact, nobody knew about the record, so none of us celebrated (laughs). I found out on the Internet a few days later, and yes, it’s pleasant to have achieved it, but I can’t afford to focus on these things too much. What matters is the success of the team.”
- You are in your fourth KHL season, and in each of them you have posted a great efficiency rating. You ended the 2015-16 regular season with a +31, making you the League’s MVP. How do you do it?
“I'm just trying to do my job well (smiles). I concentrate on giving my all in each shift, whether defending or helping the forwards. We have a very good team, we all play for one other, and in difficult situations our goalies come to the rescue. In such a good team, it is no mystery when you end up with impressive personal statistics.”
- You have a wealth of experience of various leagues in North America. You've played in the NCAA, ECHL, tried to break into the AHL, but then went to Europe. Why did you make this choice instead of aiming for the NHL?
“I had played long enough in the minor leagues and can say there are many good players, so the competition is just incredible and it is very hard to reach the top. My first year in professional hockey was not very successful. I failed to gain a foothold in the AHL and felt I wasn’t making any progress in the ECHL. I thought a spell in Europe could help my career development, so I chose this path and I have no regrets. Of course, like any player, I had dreams of one day playing in the NHL, but right now I'm happy in the KHL. It is a great League!”
“When you play alongside someone like Ozolins, you learn a great deal. The fact he could still hold his own at the top level when he was 42 is just amazing. I definitely won’t be so fit at that age!”
- You spent your first European season in Norway. Why did you choose that particular championship and how would you rate the level of hockey there?
“I didn't have much choice at the time (smiles). Maybe Norway doesn’t have the strongest League, but I got the opportunity to play and develop my game there. I didn't receive a huge number of offers, but Sparta (Sarpsborg) showed an interest. I agreed with no hesitation and went there with just one purpose – to do everything I could to show my best hockey and to justify their confidence in me.”
- In Norway you were champion in your first year. Do you often look back on those days?
“Yes, of course. It was just a fantastic year. I found myself in a great team, we had a strong roster, victory came easy for us, and we took real pleasure from our hockey. That season really helped me to resurrect my career after a faltering start in North America.”
- There followed two years in Sweden, then, in 2013, you moved to the KHL. Did you think long and hard before accepting the offer from Dinamo Riga?
“I also accepted Riga’s invitation without hesitating (smiles). The KHL is one of the strongest leagues in the world and I really wanted to play here, so when the opportunity arose I agreed straight away and I couldn’t wait to make my debut.”
“The toughest forward I’ve played against? Mozyakin, of course, and I don’t think anyone would argue. The most dangerous forward in the KHL. A true master!”
- What did you know about the KHL at the time?
“I already knew it was the strongest League in Europe, was constantly improving, and that many guys wanted to play here. When I was in Sweden, my main aim was to get into the League, as it has very high level of hockey and has attracted the finest players. Competition in the KHL is fierce, and this creates extra incentive to improve and progress, which is why I was so eager to get here.”
- What difficulties did you face after the move?
“I arrived in Riga with a good attitude and I had belief in my own abilities. I knew that if I played to my best in every game, then it would all work out. I was in a very good team, too, and that year we had some good results. My team mates were eager to help me, so I can’t say I faced any difficulties at all (smiles).”
- Did it take long to get accustomed to the KHL style of play?
“Not too long, as we played ten of our preseason games against KHL teams (laughs). That helped me to adapt more quickly. It is certainly a little different compared with the hockey played in Sweden. There all the teams play from defense, give you hardly any free space, and the game gets very physical. In the KHL, most of the teams play a more offensive game with more emphasis on team play, so you have a better chance of putting together some good combinations.”
- In Riga you played in the same team as Sandis Ozolins. Did this experience have an influence on your career?
“Undoubtedly. When you play alongside someone like Sandis, you learn a great deal. The fact he could still hold his own at the top level at the age of 42 is just amazing. I definitely won’t be in that shape when I’m 42. He was a true captain, always leading from the front. and I'm really glad I had the chance to be in his team.”
- What qualities did Ozolins have that allowed him to keep playing at such a high level while in his forties?
“I think, first and foremost, he was great at reading the game. Sandis seemed to know in advance what would happen on the ice at various times, and he very rarely wasted energy. Of course, Ozolins kept himself incredibly fit, because even at 42 he still had as much ice time as I had (laughs). Just a fantastic player!”
- You were one of the leaders of the Riga team, and for three successive seasons you’ve been among Dynamo Moscow’s finest players. What has helped you to achieve such consistent progress?
“Working constantly to improve myself and having faith in my own strengths. Setting a target plays a vital role. If you concentrate on a specific goal, you do all you can to reach it. Now I am playing in a superb team, and my partners help me to improve, to make progress in my play, and to not lose confidence. Most importantly – a positive attitude and a keen desire to work as hard as possible (smiles).
- Which teams do you regard as your most dangerous opponents?
“For me, our trickiest and biggest games are those against CSKA Moscow and Metallurg Magnitogorsk. These teams differ in style, but both are unbelievably tough to play against. They have very good skaters and strong goalkeepers, so games with these teams are pretty hard.”
- And which forward is the most difficult to play against?
“Oh, Mozyakin of course, and I don’t think anyone would argue. The most dangerous forward in the KHL. He's a true master!
“I wouldn't say that training under Oreshkin was harder or easier. just different. This time we focused on other aspects of training – we spent a lot of time on the ice and in the gym.”
- Last year you were chosen to play in the KHL All-Star Game. What was that like?
“I experienced some incredible emotions, because it was the first time in my life that I had the chance to take part in an All-Star Game. It was a real festival for the fans and a great opportunity for players to get together and chat about various things, share experiences, and join in some of the fun competitions in the Master Show.”
- Would you like to selected again this season?
“Of course, I’d be very happy! It is a great honor for me.”
- What are your aims for this season?
“I have just one aim: to win the Gagarin Cup with Dynamo. We musn’t get diverted by any other goals.”
Born: June 20, 1986 in Calgary.
Playing Career: University of Alaska-Anchorage, 2005-2009, Las Vegas Wranglers, 2008-2009;
Binghampton Senators, 2009-2010, Elmira Jackals, 2009-2010, Sparta Sarpsborg, 2010-2011,
Timra IK, 2011-2013, Dinamo Riga, 2013-2014; Dynamo Moscow, 2014-
Honors: Champion of Norway, 2010-2011, Most Valuable Defenseman, Championship of Norway 2010-2011, KHL Gentleman of the Year, 2013-2014, KHL Highest Scoring Defenseman, 2015-2016, KHL MVP, 2015-2016, KHL All-Star Game, 2015-2016.