Gary Roberts retires: 'He was a winner'

March, 10, 2009

Cliff Fletcher, while effusing about the career of Gary Roberts, couldn't help telling us what is a famous anecdote, at least in Calgary parts.

"I'll never forget his first training camp with us," Fletcher, then GM of the Flames, told on Tuesday after Roberts announced his retirement from the NHL. "We were told in advance what great shape he was in. He came to camp and he couldn't do two chin-ups. And I know he's been reminded of that his entire career."

Roberts, whose voice quivered during an emotional conference call Tuesday, welcomed the funny anecdote, which we were more than happy to provide as our first question to him.

"I basically did two chin-ups, although the guy was generous. I think I did one and a half and he gave me two," said Roberts, chuckling at the memory. "From then on, I left that training camp so embarrassed at my performance. I said to myself, 'That will never happen to me again.'"

Looking back, he said that while he learned so much from Hockey Hall of Fame junior coach Brian Kilrea with the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67s, Kilrea didn't believe much in off-ice training at the time.

"I played my lacrosse in the summer and my hockey in the winter and that was it," said Roberts, Calgary's first-round pick, 12th overall, in 1984. "I wasn't a weightlifter or a real fitness guy."

So, he got to camp and the late Bob Johnson, then the Flames' head coach, got ahold of him.

"Badger Bob made an example of me," said Roberts. "At the time, I didn't really like him much for it, but I sure thanked him in the end because he had a huge influence on the way I prepared every year after that."

Anyone who has run into Roberts over the past two decades would be shocked to hear that story. From a personal point of view, in the years we've covered the NHL, we can't think of a single hockey player who took fitness and nutrition more seriously than Roberts, which is a big reason why he lasted in the league until he was 42. He was ahead of his time in terms of many things players do routinely today, such as the health shakes and workout regimens.

"What's amazed me over the last two decades is how he matured and developed into a true professional athlete," said Fletcher. "No one has trained harder or prepared himself more diligently to play a game, a season or a playoff more than Gary did. He's a great competitor. He had very good skill for the type of game he played.

"And the best thing you can say about him, and you can't say it about that many players, is that Gary was a winner."

Roberts won his lone Stanley Cup championship with the Flames in 1989.

"I remember standing on the blue line after we won the Cup in Montreal. I was standing beside my buddy Joe Nieuwendyk, and saying, 'Wow, that was easy. How many of those are we going to win?'" Roberts said. "We're sitting here today, 20 years later, I'm retiring and I only won one. It just goes to show you how you should appreciate and respect your opportunity when you get there, because you really never know if you're going to get there again."

If winning that Cup in 1989 was his best hockey memory, we asked Roberts whether not winning during his years in Toronto with a pretty talented Maple Leafs team was his toughest pill to swallow. Roberts and the Leafs lost to Carolina in the 2002 Eastern Conference finals.

"I think back to the Toronto days and how good a team we had, it is a disappointment for me that we had that group of people and we didn't win," admitted Roberts. "Sure, we had some injury issues like everybody does in playoffs. Mats [Sundin] was out for part of that '02 run. We played a team like Carolina that was so disciplined and basically we beat ourselves in that series, I felt.

"But definitely, a disappointing part is that we never won. We were very competitive. I think we were a 100-point team every year that I was here in Toronto, so to have won a Stanley Cup obviously would have been the ultimate. We didn't do that. But I have fond memories of the teammates that I played with here [in Toronto] and the organization. It was a sad day for me when I left Toronto."

Roberts and his family built a home 45 minutes north of Toronto near a golf course that he partially owns. He's back to his roots.

A terrific career ended on a sour note, however, as Roberts was devastated he wasn't moved to a contender at last week's trade deadline, his cap number ($2.42 million) on a bonus-laden contract too difficult for interested NHL teams to take on. But he took the high road when asked about the Tampa Bay Lightning and how it ended with them.

"I was aware of the situation in Tampa. I knew that if I didn't get moved at the trading deadline, there was a possibility that I wasn't going to play another game there just because when you're out of the playoffs, as a team you're trying to evaluate your younger players," said Roberts. "I kind of felt that they were going to go that route and I understood that. But I truly believed that I was going to get picked up. I really thought that I had played well enough and I was healthy and that I'd get one more crack at it."

There was no parting shot for the Bolts.

"Yeah, I saw some things that I hadn't seen before as Mark Recchi would say, but I understand that they were in a tough position, too, trying to evaluate and trying to make decisions to better their club," said Roberts. "And sometimes, those decisions didn't always work out to help us."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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