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Roberts inching closer to return

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs
TORONTO (CP) - Gary Roberts is preparing to give the Toronto Maple Leafs a supercharged boost into the stretch drive to the NHL playoffs.

"I really believe I'm going to come back and play at the level I played at last year," says the veteran left-winger.

Roberts, 36, participated in his first full practice of the season Wednesday. Recovering from surgeries last summer on both shoulders had kept him away.

"It felt good," he said of a workout in which he took part in a scrimmage and fired slapshots. "It was nice to get back with the guys."

"I've been skating by myself for a long time so it felt nice to finally have someone pass me a puck."

The next steps are absorbing physical contact for the first time since the Eastern Conference final against Carolina last May, and getting into game condition.

Roberts still needs to take a hit or two before he's ready to return.
Graig Abel Photography
"When contact starts is when I'm really going to test the shoulders and make sure they're as strong as they need to be for me to play my game," he said.

Roberts won't change his gritty style despite his desire to play until he's at least 40.

"I need to play physical to have success," he said. "I need to be good in the corners and in front of the net."

"There's not a chance I'll play any less physical to try and prolong my career."

Roberts will play his first game "sometime after the all-star break," he predicted.

"We haven't really put a date on it. I'll have another (medical) evaluation sometime around the all-star break and then we'll go from there," he said.

The all-star game is Feb. 2 in Sunrise, Fla. Toronto is on the road against the Panthers on Feb. 5 and the Lightning on Feb. 6, and returns home to play Montreal on Sat., Feb. 8. The Hockey Night In Canada game would be an ideal launching pad for Roberts.

There were times last summer when he feared he'd never get back into NHL orbit. In the days following the surgeries, Tammi Roberts had to cut her husband's food and bathe him.

"You think to yourself, 'Boy, I'll never hit a guy again.' It's amazing how short your memory is though," he said. "Time passes and all of a sudden I'm thinking about going out there and playing again."

Being away for an extended period for the second time in his hockey career intensified his desire to play again, said Roberts, who sat out 1996-97 after retiring because of a serious neck injury.

"When you lose something like I did the first time around, you realize how much (the sport) means to you," he said. "Now, I'd like to prolong it as much as I can."

Roberts is slated to become an unrestricted free agent July 1, so he's eager to show he's got plenty left to offer. Agent Rich Curran and Leafs GM-coach Pat Quinn will be talking.

"Hopefully, we'll get something done before (the season) is over," said Roberts.

Re-signing Roberts will be a priority for Quinn.

"Absolutely," he said. "I love the way he plays and he's really helped our organization."

"His emotion and his style of play - being around the puck, around the net, relentless - is infectious."

Added Roberts: "It's obvious I'm coming back to showcase myself no matter what happens. It's just a matter of wanting to succeed. If that means showcasing yourself, I guess it does. But I just want to come back and build on how I left off in the playoffs last year."

Roberts grew up in nearby Oshawa-Whitby and would prefer to finish his career with the Leafs.

Gary Roberts is hoping to be in the Blue and White for the foreseeable future.
"I have no reason to want to leave," he said. "Things are good for me here."

He'd kept a low profile until cornered by a media horde in the dressing room Wednesday.

"I'm not a believer that when you're injured you should be in the dressing room rah-rahing it up," he explained. "You're not going to war with the players (during an injury absence)."

"Other guys are going through all the peaks and valleys and you're kind of in the background just trying to get healthy. I think that's the best place for you - out of sight, out of mind. I don't need to be in here with pom poms."

"I've tried to stay in the background. My teammates are the ones who have gone out and battled and done a great job. I don't want to have my mug in the paper every day with wondering how I'm dealing with things. That's just not fair."

Toronto (25-18-4-1) has moved up in the standings rapidly after a terrible start.

"I've enjoyed watching our team succeed and now I'm looking forward to being part of that," he said. "I still think we have a great group here that has an opportunity to do something special."

Coming back from neck surgeries was tougher than this, Roberts said, adding he learned a lot from that experience. That's why he's taken his time to fully recover.

"I had two neck surgeries and came back too soon and ended up retiring for 18 months so I'm well aware that even when you think you feel great it's just a matter of taking contact and making sure you're ready," he said. "Once you're sure, then give it another couple more weeks just to be real sure you're ready."

"I don't think I'll be as hesitant this time around with my shoulders as I was with my neck."

Roberts expects to be nervous when he finally skates in an actual game.

"You're always nervous when you come back after a long layoff," he said. "But I won't have that hesitation that I had with my neck."

"My neck was all about: `Can I take a hit from behind? Am I going to be able to get up?' With the shoulders, this is not a career-threatening injury."

"What we're talking about is: am I going to be able to go out and be as physical as I used to be to be successful? I think I can do that. I feel real healthy and I look forward to the most exciting time of year, which is playoffs."

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