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He Keeps Coming Back for More

by Erin Chenderlin / Tampa Bay Lightning

Gary Roberts must be a glutton for punishment.

At 42, he is the oldest forward in the NHL. He played only 38 games last season after suffering, among other things, a respiratory infection and a broken leg. Still, he managed three goals, 15 points and 40 penalty minutes. Out of the lineup since December, Roberts managed to come back for the Penguins' final regular season game, a 2-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on April 6.

He played two games in each of the Penguins’ first three playoff series and nearly equaled his goal production for the season April 9 against Ottawa, scoring two goals while playing on the fourth line in the 4-0 victory. Roberts became the oldest player in NHL history to record a multi-goal game in the playoffs. He played in five of six games in the Stanley Cup Final series against Detroit, coming within two wins of hockey’s greatest prize.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
"At one point I thought I wasn't going to play again," he said. "I decided that, after the way things went in the playoffs, that I wasn't ready to quit."

He missed 43 games last season because of his broken leg, but he came back. Less than a month after his return, a groin injury caused him to miss five playoff games. But he came back. Just a few weeks later, he missed four more playoff games because of pneumonia.

But he came back.

"People say, 'Oh, you're old, you can't play anymore,' but I truly believe it was kind of a fluke season," Roberts said. "Everybody has a year once and a while with injuries. I'm close to being 100 percent and really feel good coming in this year and having a good season."

Roberts keeps coming back. Even after retiring after the 1995-96 season, his 10th in the league with the Calgary Flames. He needed two neck surgeries and figured he would never play the game again. He sat out one season and his neck got better. He realized he had made a mistake.

“You don't realize how much you love something until you lose it,” he said.

So he came back.

Roberts played the 1997-98 season, this time wearing a Carolina Hurricanes sweater. He played 61 games, scoring 20 goals and recording 49 points. Not bad for someone who thought his time was up in the NHL.

He stayed with the Hurricanes for three seasons, then went on to play for the Maple Leafs, the Panthers and, most recently, the Penguins. He had four more seasons of 20+ goals, something he's now done 12 times during his career.

And he's far from finished. He comes now to Tampa Bay a seasoned veteran full of knowledge, experience and determination. In Pittsburgh, he worked with young hockey phenoms such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, and will have a similar opportunity in Tampa with Steven Stamkos. While Roberts says he's not one to walk around and give unsolicited advice, he welcomes helping those who ask.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
"If someone comes to me looking for some advice, I have no problem giving it," he said. "As I've gotten older, I just kind of do my own thing and try and be the best pro I can be by coming to the ice every night prepared to play."

Roberts comes to Tampa Bay along with two of his Pittsburgh teammates, Ryan Malone and Adam Hall. Roberts said it helps to come in to a new city with teammates you're familiar with, but also said he's sure the new team in Tampa will mesh quickly. The most important thing, he said, is to be yourself and take care of business.

"When you go to a new team, you kind of find your way," he said. "You sit back and watch and you more-or-less do your own thing. At some point, you just kind of fit in."

Hall seems confident that his friend and teammate will fit in quickly, and said he's glad they're staying on the same side of the puck.

"Gary Roberts is a physical, hard-nosed player, who is obviously a good size and he's massive on the ice," Hall said. "I think he's got such a reputation as a feared player that he's definitely one of the guys that you want on your side."

Another member of the Lightning crew surely happy to be on Roberts' side is new assistant coach Rick Tocchet. Tocchet played in the NHL for many of the same years as Roberts, and the two crossed paths a few times and even dropped the gloves once, while Roberts played for Carolina and Tocchet for Phoenix.

"It was just one of those things where we ran into each other and neither one of us was going to back down," Roberts said. "Rick was a tough customer when he played and I really respect how he played the game. I hear great things about him as a coach, so I'm looking forward to working with him."

Roberts wouldn't say who won the fight, however, simply calling it a draw.

"We're teammates now," he said. "Hopefully we'll get along better!"

Now working together, Roberts and Tocchet are fighting for the same goal: to get their team back to the playoffs for a chance at the Stanley Cup.

"I don't see any reason why this team can't be a real contender this season," Roberts said.

Roberts has won the Cup before, with the Calgary Flames in 1989 in just his second season in the NHL. He was 23 at the time and said he thought to himself, ‘Wow, that was easy…how many more of those am I going to win?’ The answer, at least so far, is zero. It’s one of the reasons he keeps coming back.

Roberts wants to win another Stanley Cup. He wants to prove he can still play the game he loves, and he truly believes Tampa Bay can be a Cup contender this season.

So he came back.

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