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Despite traumatic season, Roberts isn't finished

by Dan Rosen

Longtime veteran Gary Roberts answers questions about his health and playing status Friday in Detroit during the NHL's "Live at the Stanley Cup Final." Watch
DETROIT – The last time Gary Roberts was in the Stanley Cup Final, he was a 23-year-old kid finishing up his second full NHL season by watching his captain, Lanny McDonald, accept the shiny silver trophy on the ice at the old Forum in Montreal.

"I think back to standing on the blue line waiting for our captain and assistants to accept the Stanley Cup and talking to my buddy Joe Nieuwendyk and saying, 'Hey, how many of these are we going to win?' " Roberts told "It's been 19 years for me. He's won two since then so I'm trying to close the gap a little on him."

Fast forward to 2008 and Roberts is back in the Stanley Cup Final as a grizzled veteran winger for the Pittsburgh Penguins who just turned 42 years old on Friday, a day he spent contemplating if this series is going to be the last hurrah in his long and decorated NHL career.

If that doesn't put things into perspective for the young Penguins, what does?

"Maybe it's time? Yeah, it's one of those things you have to kind of weigh at this point," Roberts told "It's been a tough year on me, but it's not the way I want to go out either."

Roberts, a notorious fitness and nutrition guru, is about to finish his 20th NHL season, which has also been the hardest on his aging hockey body.

He battled a respiratory infection during training camp, the effects of which lasted nearly until Christmas. Right when he was starting to feel better is when he broke his left leg and suffered a high ankle sprain. He refused to be carried off the ice.

Three months later he returned to the lineup for the final game of the regular season, but he hurt his groin in Game 2 against Ottawa and missed the next five games. Prior to Game 3 against Philadelphia he was knocked out of the lineup again, this time with a mild case of pneumonia.

The illness kept Roberts out for the remaining three games of the Eastern Conference Final, and even though he proclaimed himself healthy on Friday he won't get back in the lineup for tonight's Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

"A lot of guys go through tough years with injuries, it just so happens that I'm 42 and people can say, 'Oh, he's finished, he can't win anymore,' " Roberts said. "Look at the respect I have for (Chris) Chelios. That he has played this long gives me a little bit of belief that maybe I'm not done yet.

"The biggest thing for me is to play this out use this summer to reassess how I feel. If my health comes back and my training goes well and I feel like I can play I think I will come back and play. I don't want this to be the year that I remember."

Even if Roberts does retire following this Stanley Cup Final, he shouldn't worry about people remembering him only for his injury-plagued final year in the NHL.

Roberts would instead be remembered as one of the League's foremost warriors, someone who returned to the game after a pair of serious neck injuries forced him into semi-retirement in 1996 by reinventing his body and his lifestyle.

Roberts played the first 600 games of his career as a fearless 185-pound forward who took a beating for standing in front of the net, a tactic that nearly cost him his career and did cost him roughly two full seasons worth of games from 1994-97.

But he has played the last 600 games of his career as one of the strongest and fittest 205-pound forwards in the game, one who is still fearless around the net only more equipped to play there due to his training regimen and healthy lifestyle.

"When I was 20-years-old I was on the beer and chicken wings and pizza program. You're able to do it when you're that age," Roberts said. "I was playing at 185 pounds until I was 30 and playing in front of the net when you were allowed to cross-check guys in the back. I took a beating for 10 years and had to retire because of two neck surgeries.

"For me to come back I knew I was going to have to change my body and that's when I really changed my lifestyle, my nutrition and trained differently. Now I play at 205 or 207 when I used to play at 185 or 187. Now my body is able to take that pounding a little more."

Roberts said he reinvented himself with the help of renowned Canadian trainer Charles Poliquin, who has also worked with Al MacInnis, Nieuwendyk, Chris Pronger and many summer and winter Olympic athletes.

"I got word of him being in Calgary and I trained with Charles for the whole winter," Roberts said. "I took 16 months off and came back to play."

He never again became the major goal scorer he was four times in a five season span from 1989-94 (he topped out with a career high of 53 goals in 1991-92), but Roberts was still an effective player in his 30s save for 2002-03 when he missed the first 57 games recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries.

This season, though, Roberts has been plagued by bad luck and an aging body. He was limited to only 38 regular-season games and so far only six of the Penguins' 14 playoff games.

"I don't believe (my injuries) are fitness related," Roberts said. "I think it's a lot of wear and tear on the body and maybe after a little break here for a month or so this summer I'll see how I feel."

The one thing about Roberts that has remained constant since his semi-retirement from the game in 1996-97 is his commitment to training and his body. Now that he's the oldest guy on a team of young 20-something players, he also can serve as a role model.

If guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Ryan Whitney and any of the other young Penguins want to learn the tricks to a long and successful NHL career, all they have to do is watch the veteran they'll likely find in the gym.

"I try to lead by example by being in the gym every day," Roberts said. "Just being there shows the guys you need to do a little bit more than just play hockey to last a long time."

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