Jonathon Robinson has been religiously tuning into the NCAA March Madness basketball tournament on television looking for ice hockey.
No, the 20-year-old San Diego native isn’t confusing this month’s basketball fest with next month’s NCAA Frozen Four hockey tournament.
He’s been checking out the basketball games to see if a television commercial that debuted during last year’s March Madness and featured him playing hockey is airing again during this year’s tournament.
Robinson was the black hockey player in an ad for Powerade, a Coca-Cola brand sport drink, that generated a lot of buzz last year for challenging athletic and societal stereotypes. The 31-second spot featured quick cuts of athletes seemingly against type: a smallish basketball player going strong to the hoop; a slow defensive football player attacking a quarterback; and a female wrestler preparing to do battle against a male opponent.
Then there was Robinson, who skated towards the camera with his white teammates and asked whether he was “Not in the right sport?”
A year after the commercial premiered, Robinson remains thrilled that he had the opportunity to be in it and proud of the message – beyond selling a product – that the ad tried to convey.
“By saying those few lines and just the whole message of the commercial, it really meant a lot more special to me than the normal guy would actually understand,” Robinson told me recently. “It was one of the best things that ever happened to me mainly because of all of the things I’ve been through with hockey.”
Robinson’s pursuit of a hockey career has taken him from California to Washington, Saskatoon, Swift Current, Atlanta, Coquitlam, British Columbia, Des Moines and back. He’s been through an alphabet of leagues – the British Columbia Hockey League, the North American Prospects Hockey League, the Western States Hockey League, the Tier 1 Elite Minor Midget Hockey League and tryouts with Western Hockey League and United States Hockey League teams.
At 14, Robinson was an 11th-round draft pick of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades in 2008. Doug Molleken, head scout for the Blades, told Canwest that he liked how Robinson skated and marveled how strong he was in with the puck in the corners of the rink.
“The had a hard time taking the puck away from him,” Molleken told the Canadian news service. “He’s gotta learn the game a little bit, but I think he’s going to be OK.”
But an injury kept him from competing in training camp, which helped launch his search for a hockey home. He had a 2011 tryout with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos. At 20, he finished the 2013-14 season playing for the WSHL’s Lake Tahoe Blue and now finds himself at the crossroad of his hockey career.
Robinson put his hockey dreams on hold in 2012 after he father, Rick, suffered a series of stokes. He moved from California to Arlington, Va., to help provide for his family while his father recovered.
“I had two jobs, I was a lifeguard and I was also cleaning grocery stores,” he said. “The stores were in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. I would leave the house around 5 a.m., start working around 6 a.m. and get home around 7:30 at night.”
Whenever he had time, Robinson tried to stay in hockey shape by attending stick and puck sessions at Virginia’s Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the practice facility of the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals.
And it was a good thing that he did. In January 2013, Robinson received a phone call from a friend in California who told him about auditions for the Powerade commercial.
“The timing could not have been better,” he said. “The year before, I was playing in the BCHL, that was my draft year, and I had separated my shoulder and my dad had three strokes and five brain surgeries.”
When he arrived at the casting call, Robinson said he found about 25 other black hockey players and actors vying for the role.
“The audition was throughout the day,” he recalled. “I got there first, I was the first person to audition, and I stayed a good hour after that just watching the other guys.”
But Robinson had a leg-up on the competition because of his family background in show business. His dad was a cinematographer and his mother, Dawn, was an assistant on the set of the 1989 Eddie Murphy movie “Harlem Nights.”
The early exposure to the film business helped Jonathon land a cameo role in an episode of the old NBC hit series “Friends” in which he kicked Ross – played by actor David Schwimmer – in the face.
About a week-and-a half after the Powerade audition, Robinson headed to Iowa for a
tryout with the USHL Des Moines Buccaneers. He received a callback for the commercial during the tryout with instructions to scurry back to Hollywood ASAP.
Elated, Robinson caught the next flight to California – leaving his hockey equipment behind in Des Moines.
“I left all my gear in the locker room of the USHL team,” he said. “I had to borrow some gear from some owners of teams I knew.”
Robinson recalls spending 12 hours on the ice shooting the commercial at the Pickwick Ice Center in Burbank and doing about 40 takes on just one scene that required him to check an opposing player hard into the boards.
“I remember at the end of it the kid was dead, he was begging not to be hit anymore,” Robinson said. “We had a couple of takes where I was laughing because of something the director yelled out while we were filming.”
These days, Robinson is working on the Phase Two of his young life. He plans to enroll in college this summer to study cinematography. But hockey still isn’t out of his system. He hopes to coach or teach at hockey camps.
“I want to coach kids, youth hockey players, be able to bring them up, and help them chase their dreams,” he said.