Friday

Gary Roberts

On Friday came news that Gary Roberts career was coming to an end. Unceremoniously dumped by the Tampa Bay Lightning, this certainly was not the way the great warrior had hoped to see his career come to a close.

Though he had not played with them since 1996 I will always remember Gary Roberts best as a Calgary Flame. It was with the Flames that he enjoyed his best years, along side boyhood friend and fellow lacrosse star Joe Nieuwendyk.

Just a youngster with the Flames when they won the Stanley Cup in 1989, Roberts grew to become one of the last great pieces of that team, averaging 39 goals and 200 PIMs from 1990 through 1994. That included a team record 53 goals (and 207 PIMs) in 1991-92.

He was an admirable player. Not a great one based on skill sets, but an opportunistic hard worker who was rewarded, perhaps overachievingly so.

He was a mucker and grinder at heart, a great cornerman and net crasher. He was incredibly intelligent, arriving at the net at the right time and driving through lanes to open up offensive room for his teammates. He was in no way fancy, relying a quick release and banging and crashing to score all of his many goals.

Physically he was scary. He feared no pain and launched his bodies at opponents on nearly every shift. His powerful skating stride punctuated his effectiveness, and made him a natural forechecker and penalty killer.

Strong and determined, he set the tone on many nights in Calgary. If not through his hustle and pursuit game, then by dropping the gloves. He was not a true heavyweight, but he had the mindset of a pit bull.

Not surprisingly, Roberts' relentless physical game began to break down his own body over time. After missing the remainder of the 1994-95 season and much of the 1995-96 season, he was forced into retirement in 1996. Bone spurs in his neck caused nerve damage and numbing in his arms. Doctors would be forced to operate, and told Roberts he had to give up the game he loved.

Throughout the 1996-97 season he embarked upon a most vigorous rehabilitation program determined to return to the ice. He found doctors who cleared him to play, but the Flames were not convinced. Not willing to insure his contract, the Flames did not stand in Roberts away of attempting a come back. He was traded with goalie Trevor Kidd to Carolina for Andrew Cassels and a prospect named Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

Roberts made a successful return to the National Hockey League, much to everyone's delight and perhaps surprise. While his penalty minute totals came down, his rugged game did not change much. He still crashed the net with reckless abandon and dropped the gloves without hesitation. His opportunistic nose for the net allowed him to score over 20 goals in 4 of his first 5 seasons back in the game.

Roberts, who signed with Toronto in 2000 after three seasons with the Canes, would suffer a serious set back in 2002-03. Shoulder surgery kept him out of all but 14 games that season. But he would return once again triumphant, scoring 28 goals the next season.

In 2004-05 the NHL lost a season due to a labour dispute. Upon its return the NHL had a tight salary cap, and the Leafs were handcuffed with some bigger contracts. The Leafs did not make Roberts an offer.

Despite rumblings that he would only play in Toronto, Roberts, a noted fitness freak, would return to the ice for five more seasons. First it was with Florida for two seasons. Then he moved on to play parts of two seasons with Sidney Crosby Penguins, including during their charge to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008. And lastly, and somewhat infamously, with Len Barrie's Tampa Bay Lightning at the age of 42.

In total, Roberts played 1,224 regular season games. He had 438 goals and 909 points and 2560 penalty minutes, making him one of only four players to have 400 goals and 2500 PIMs.

What I find most amazing is he played 11 seasons, including 639 games, after retiring due to a neck injury where he was told to never play the game again. And he played those games with the same physical approach he always did.

Gary Roberts will not get into the Hockey Hall of Fame. But he was one helluva player.

2 comments:

Hogie,  9:53 AM  

I've never seen Rocket Richard play, but when I see the intensity of Roberts' play, I imagine that's what Richard must have been like (on an even higher level). I fondly remember Roberts on the Leaf team when he was a tour de force in one particular playoffs, and would have been a good shot for playoff MVP had the Leafs made it to the finals.

vdkhanna 12:10 PM  

If Roberts won the Cup last season, it probably would have marked the longest gap between Cups ever for a player (19 years!).

I was not fortunate enough to watch him play during his Calgary days, but his comeback from injury with Carolina and subsequent success with the Maple Leafs were nothing short of spectacular!

Not quite a Hall-of-Famer (nor a Legend, per se), but a true warrior and graybeard!

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