In 1988, shockwaves were sent throughout Canada and California when Canadian icon and arguably the greatest hockey player to ever play the game, Wayne Gretzky, was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. But the after-effects of that trade created a hockey boom in the Golden State and its legacy is still felt more than 25 years later. 29 NHL players have called California home, and an even greater number fill out the ranks of the top North American junior leagues and NCAA collegiate teams.
Robert Jackson III, one of the top forwards eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, hails from California. Jackson was regarded as a top-five overall pick for the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft but his inability to commit to signing with a WHL team and forgo NCAA eligibility saw him drop to the seventh round where he was selected 153rd overall by the Tri-City Americans. The Americans didn’t see Jackson’s hesitance about playing in the WHL as a hindrance but as more motivation to continue to actively try to convince Jackson that the WHL would be the better route for his NHL aspirations.
Although Jackson lived in Northern California, he saw playing in Southern California as his best chance to gain national recognition and attract the attention of junior and college scouts. Jackson would make weekly commutes from his Bay Area home to Los Angeles to play for the LA Selects his bantam year and, after the 2012 merger of the LA Selects and LA Jr. Kings programs, the Jr. Kings for his midget year.
Self described as a playmaker, Jackson further explained that he “wants to score goals but not be just a pure goal scorer.” Working hard on maintaining responsibility in his own end is just as important as making an impact on the scoreboard for Jackson.
His 54 goals and 57 assists in 47 games for the Selects was what attracted the attention of WHL scouts and earned Jackson his status as one of the top ’97-born forwards in the WHL protected territories. Coaching the Selects during Jackson’s bantam year was Bill Comrie, father of NHL players Mike and Paul Comrie. Bill Comrie’s younger sons, Eric and Ty, are currently playing for the Americans. Ty Comrie was also Jackson’s teammate on the Selects and was selected in the third round of the same WHL draft as Jackson.
The following year, after the merger of the two powerhouse Southern California programs, Jackson would score 29 goals and 49 assists in 40 games for the Jr. Kings. In the third round of the 2013 USHL Futures Draft, the Chicago Steel would make Jackson their first pick of that round.
At the conclusion of his 2012-13 midget season with the Jr. Kings, Jackson thought it would be best for his development to play with the Steel and keep his NCAA eligibility.
“I want to play college hockey and the USHL gives you the best opportunity to get into the NCAA. I want to get into the NHL but also have my education to fall back on,” said Jackson when asked what persuaded him to choose playing for the Steel over the Americans.
Even though this is his first season with the Steel, he is already making an immediate impact on the score sheet. In his first 31 games of the season, he has eight goals and 10 assists, good enough for the top three in team scoring.
Steel head coach Scott McConnell attributes Jackson’s early success to “having a higher maturity level than most kids his age.” McConnell further explained that Jackson's leaving home to play for the Selects at the age of 14 meant that Jackson understood “what it takes to be on his own and be focused on his hockey and attending school.”
McConnell is just as impressed with Jackson’s attitude off the ice as he is with his performance on the ice.
“He’s a humble kid and a very talented hockey player, and the closest thing we’ve had to a natural goal scorer since Andy Miele. He has the ability to put pucks in places most players in our league can’t. With his hockey playing ability and humbleness, he has the world at his feet right now. He’s just going to get better and better as he grows older.”
As with every other player at Jackson’s age, there are areas in his game that McConnell would like to see improved.
“He needs to work on becoming more consistent and constantly evolving his game, and pushing his ceiling and what he can do as a hockey player further and further up. That mindset and ability to continue to push his game is what he needs to keep in the front of his mind.”
When posed with the question of whether Jackson’s 5’9” and 170-pound size will be a problem at higher levels of the game, McConnell doesn’t believe so. Like current NHL players Martin St Louis and Nathan Gerbe, Jackson’s explosiveness can be used to overcome his smaller stature.
For now, Jackson will have at least another year in the USHL to further hone his skills and add size to his frame. McConnell sees Jackson making improvements daily as a player and thinks that he has barely scratched the surface of what he is capable of.
Next time in Beyond Tomorrow
The next Beyond Tomorrow feature will look at Jansen Harkins of the Prince George Cougars. Harkins recently played for Team Canada at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia.
HF's Beyond Tomorrow feature looks at prospects with the potential to be chosen in an NHL Draft beyond the current season's draft.