It is more than a little fitting, actually truly nostalgic, that Gary Roberts last game in the National Hockey League was at the Pengrowth Saddledome in Calgary.
The rugged winger began his career in Calgary in 1986 and it ended there with 1,224 games, 438 goals and 910 points as Roberts retired from the NHL this week. Having won his only Stanley Cup in Calgary, the city and the team obviously hold a place in his heart.
"Well, it's fitting, you know. My daughter called me and said, Dad, I'd like to be at possibly your last game in Calgary. I didn't realize it was going to be my last game of my career.
So I flew her out to Calgary, and she was there for the weekend. We had a chance to spend the night together, having dinner, and then she came and watched the game with some other close friends from my Calgary days," said Roberts, who played his final game in a Tampa Bay uniform on the Saddledome ice on March 1.
"So, actually, it was for me a little emotional. Calgary's got a big place in my heart. Obviously, winning a Stanley Cup there is my best hockey memory that I can remember. So very fitting, and thankful, actually. If it was going to end that way, that it ended where I won a Stanley Cup."
You could say that Roberts' formative NHL years were spent in Calgary -- the first 10 seasons he played with the Flaming C on his jersey after being chosen 12th overall in the 1984 entry draft. Twenty years ago, in 1989, he stood at centre ice in the Montreal Forum with a Stanley Cup under his belt. In fact, Roberts is the last player from the 1989 team to retire.This from a player who many figured was finished after requiring surgeries to repair disks in his neck in 1996, surgeries that sidelined him for 18 months.
Roberts, who developed into a fitness fanatic during his career, beat all the odds and returned to play a dozen more years, in Carolina, Toronto, Florida, Pittsburgh and Tampa.
Still, every time he made it back to Calgary he would take some time to look at the Stanley Cup winning picture that hangs outside the Flames dressing room.
"For sure, you know what, every time I came to Calgary I always peaked my head in. I had a second to peak my head in and look at the team photo and reflect on the great memories I had there, and the teammates that I played with. And, yeah, I take some pride in the fact that I was able to last as long as I did. But probably because I took so many years off. I played 10 years and then take a year off. And play a few years, take a year off. So I was rehabbing, but I was getting some rest along the way also. So I was fortunate, for sure," said Roberts, now 42.
Coming out of junior hockey in Ottawa, Roberts was a wide-eyed kid who wasn't really into summer training -- he played lacrosse in the summer and hockey in the winter but hitting the gym just wasn't;t a priority. Arriving in Calgary for his first pro camp gave him a jolt and he eventually became one of the fittest players in the league. Still, that first camp and the chin-up story keep getting told.
"I wasn't a weightlifter. I wasn't a real fitness guy. I got to camp, and Badger Bob (Johnson) made an example of me. At the time I didn't like him much for it. But I thanked him in the end because he had a huge influence on the way that I prepared every year now. But yeah, I did two chin-ups, and I think the guy was generous. I did one and a half. And he gave me two. I left that training camp so embarrassed at my performance, I said to myself, 'That will never happen to me again.' I remember going to buy one of those chin-up bars that you put in doorjambs. Whether I was at conditioning camps, skating camps in the summer, I brought this chin-up bar with me. Every time I went through the door I did a few chin-ups. And next training camp, Badger Bob came by, and he watched me do every test, you know, chin-ups, dips, push-ups, he watched me do all those tests. And made sure I didn't cheat, and I wasn't allowed to cheat. I did 16 my next year. And then from that time on, obviously, chin-ups was high on my list as far as training but I can say at this point I'm probably never going to do another chin-up," said Roberts.
One of the friendships that evolved out of his time in Calgary was with Lanny McDonald.
"I was a Hab fan growing up, and a Guy Lafleur fan, that's why I wear number 10. But once I got to Calgary and met Lanny McDonald, I became a Toronto Maple Leafs/Calgary Flames fan. And yes, the Lanny McDonald stick up at a showdown at Markham Arena when I was a young kid. I remember picking the stick up and thinking how does this guy use this thing it's so heavy?
But to have that opportunity, I remember when I signed in Toronto and I was driving down from the cottage, and called Lanny McDonald and said I knew Gary Valk was wearing number 10. And I was never the guy to call and ask if I could wear someone's number when they already had it. Brad McCrimmon had a huge influence on me as a young player, he got traded and was wearing number 10 in Philadelphia. He was senior to me. And he came to Calgary and wore number 4 and didn't even ask for number 10. So you learn from those guys. I thought that was nice of him not to come in and ask me for number 10.
" So I did the same in Toronto. I called up Lanny McDonald and said would you mind if I wore number 7 as a Toronto Maple Leaf? And he said 'Robs I would be honored if you wore number 7'.
So it was very special to me that Toronto was the only city that I wore number 7. And I wore it because a guy named Lanny McDonald wore it for years. And it really is emotional for me."
Having grown up in the Toronto area, and now planning to settle in the area, Roberts' fondest memories may be of playing in both Calgary and Toronto.
"Toronto and Calgary are two unbelievable cities to play hockey in. And I have great, fond memories of both cities," said Roberts.
"I think about the Calgary years when we won the Cup and how close our team was. It was an unbelievable time. I remember standing on the blue line after we won the Cup in Montreal, and standing there beside my buddy Joe Nieuwendyk and saying that was easy. How many more of those are we going to win? So we're sitting here today, 20 years later and I'm retiring, and I've only won one. So just goes to show you how much you should appreciate and respect your opportunity when you get there. Because you really never know if you're going to get back there again. But the Calgary fans and the city of Calgary have so many fond memories, and still really some of my closest friends in Calgary that I keep in touch with, vacation with, so it really is a place that is for the most part, my first ten years of my career. I thought I was going to call Calgary my home forever."
Roberts has no immediate plans, other than to spend time with his family and be on hand for the birth of his third child at the end of May. But the game is in his blood and it might not be that long before he is back in hockey in some capacity.
"I love the game, absolutely. I played for 20-something years because of it. I'm going to take some time right now to kind of reflect. Then I'm sure at some point I'll be back in the game."