Lifelong friends coming full circle

TORONTO -- If you're really going to start at the beginning with Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, you have to go back to the Owls and the Wrens.

Those were the names of the tyke teams on which the two Whitby, Ontario natives played when they first crossed paths at the age of six in the local rink, the one with the chicken wire on the end boards and the uncomfortable seats.

Roberts was a Wren and Nieuwendyk an Owl. The rest, as they say, is history.

Their paths have crossed and re-crossed and crossed again in the ensuing 30 years, a thread woven into something infinitely stronger, their friendship a comfortable cloak sustaining them through Stanley Cup championships and gold medals, crushing disappointment and tragedy.

Now, closer to the end than the beginning, the longtime friends have enjoyed a Hollywood-like reunion and one last, bona fide chance at shared glory. Both players admit they sometimes look across the Air Canada Centre dressing room or across the ice during practice and shake their heads at how their hockey lives have turned, at two friends' good fortune.

"It's kind of an overwhelming feeling, really," says Nieuwendyk, now 37. "I really think we've been the same since we were kids. Our relationship has been strong all the way through."

The two began playing together on all-star hockey teams in the small bedroom community of Whitby, east of Toronto, shortly after their stints with the Owls and the Wrens. Often Roberts, also 37, would leave his home in an area known as Dogpatch, which he describes as being slightly on the wrong side of the tracks, early in the morning and walk across town to the Nieuwendyk homestead.

They played together under the same coach until they were in their mid-teens and Roberts was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League. Sports dominated their lives. Hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer.

"There was always a gang of them hanging around," recalls Nieuwendyk's older brother Gil.

Undrafted by major junior teams, Nieuwendyk played a tier below in Junior B with Roberts' brother and then went to Cornell, where he starred for two years.
Both players were leaders on Canada's national junior team in 1985-86.

In 1984, Roberts was drafted by the Calgary Flames 12th overall and a year later the Flames traded up to draft Nieuwendyk with their second pick, 27th overall.

The moment the pick was announced, Roberts was on the phone to his friend, but the line was constantly busy. Nieuwendyk, it turns out, was trying to reach Roberts at the same time.

Nieuwendyk was an instant star, scoring 51 goals in each of his first two seasons in the NHL, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 1988. Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy are the only other NHLers to hit the magic 50-goal mark in their first two seasons.

Although they are listed at the same height, 6-foot-2, it was Roberts who brought a greater physical edge to his game, never afraid to drop his gloves at a time when the NHL was chockablock with street fighters. It was Nieuwendyk who told insisted his friend could make a career for himself without dumbing down his game.

"He said, 'Robs, you don't have to fight that guy. You're a better player than that.' He kind of helped me get away from that. He really pushed me to be a better player," said Roberts, who admits it wasn't necessarily the fighting but the regularity with which he lost those fights that was a threat to his longevity.

It was sage advice.

The two went on to share a Stanley Cup when the powerful Flames beat Montreal in six games in 1989, and in 1991-92 Roberts went on to join the 50-goal club as well, notching a career-best 53.

There were moments of personal success shared not just with each other but with families that, as though through osmosis, had become close as well.

During the time Roberts and Nieuwendyk were with the Flames, the two families would often visit back and forth in Whitby to watch Hockey Night in Canada. During the 1989 final series, the two clans traveled en masse to Montreal. One story from the championship night has Nieuwendyk's mother, Joanne, directing traffic at the Montreal forum with a hockey stick so the team bus could leave the frenzied scene.

"That's a fact," said Gil Nieuwendyk, a former professional lacrosse color commentator who lives west of Toronto. "That's brought up every Christmas when we all get together."

When Nieuwendyk's mother passed away in November 1996 after a short bout with cancer, it was a blow to both men, especially Nieuwendyk, who calls the period the most difficult of his life.

"Gary really helped me a lot," says Nieuwendyk, the youngest of four children.

Gil Nieuwendyk recalls the entire Roberts family delivering food to their grieving friends and Roberts especially offering comfort to his longtime friend and teammate.

"Gary was there for Joe. Just being there and listening and talking," Gil Nieuwendyk recalled. "He's Gary. He's not a hockey player or a superstar, he's just a real good friend of the family."

Earlier, when Roberts was forced out of the game temporarily with a serious neck injury after the 1996 season, it was Nieuwendyk who provided strength in a time of need.

"That was a really tough time for me because the phone stopped ringing. You were out of the loop," said Roberts, who tried his hand at various things to keep himself busy including selling sportswear and sporting goods.

"At that particular stage it was a really tough pill to swallow," Nieuwendyk says.

But every week, the phone would ring in Roberts' home and it would be Nieuwendyk on the end of the line, asking how things were going, chatting, making the situation seem less daunting.

Since their playing days in Calgary, Nieuwendyk has gone on to win Stanley Cups in Dallas and New Jersey along with a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

Each time the first call has gone to Roberts.

Roberts recalls watching the celebration on Yonge Street after Canada's stirring win over the United States in the gold medal game and getting a call from Nieuwendyk.

"It was pretty emotional for me. To get a call from him from the dressing room (in Salt Lake City)," Roberts said. "It went a long way with me, obviously."

When one or the other has been mired in a slump or, in the case of Nieuwendyk, who was a free agent without a team until the eve of training camp this past summer, there have been regular calls of support.

"I really want him to do well and I know he wants the same for me," Nieuwendyk said.

They have played against each other infrequently given various injuries and the vagaries of the NHL schedule, which is fine with Nieuwendyk, who admitted he dreaded the thought of playing against Roberts in the playoffs last spring.

"I was dreading if we had to play Toronto in a series because I didn't want to go against a childhood buddy for seven games," Nieuwendyk says.

Roberts recalls one night while he was still in Calgary being told he was going to play center and was expected to give Nieuwendyk, then with Dallas, an especially rough time. Roberts left the meeting shaking his head, vowing that opponent or not, coach's instructions or not, he would not be gooning it up with his best friend. Roberts did earn a moral victory that night when he won a faceoff against Nieuwendyk, one of the acknowledged masters of the art. A picture of that moment, historic or not, hangs in Roberts' home.

"I think I'll keep that one on my wall for a long time," Roberts said.

There is now a cozy symmetry to the proceedings.

Members of both families still live throughout the Toronto area and Nieuwendyk and Roberts are partners in a golf course investment near the city. Occasionally the two fathers will get together to see their boys play.

Although Nieuwendyk has been bothered by injury, his play has been stellar and Roberts has regained the form that saw him lead the Leafs to the Eastern Conference final two years ago.

The Leafs entered the holiday break as one of the top teams in the NHL and there is unbridled optimism surrounding the team's postseason chances. Sometimes the two quietly discuss what it would mean to win a Stanley Cup for this championship-starved franchise.

"I know we both think about it and we've discussed it," says Nieuwendyk. "Having gone full circle, winning one in 1989 at the beginning of our careers and now to have a chance to win one at the end, at home."

Nieuwendyk just shakes his head at the thought.

What more could two friends ask?

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.