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NHL stars seek out Gary Roberts' tough training

by Dan Rosen

TORONTO -- Gary Roberts is standing below a life-size poster bearing his image as he peers over Steven Stamkos' left shoulder. In a matter of seconds the Tampa Bay Lightning's 60-goal scorer is in a dead sprint on the incline treadmill, the one that echoes throughout the workout facility created by Roberts to test the limits on players and provide them the tools for greatness.

Roberts, dressed head to toe in blue-and-black Nike apparel, watches Stamkos push his legs. He is running faster than he ever thought possible before he started training in Roberts' home gym four summers ago.


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Roberts is eying Stamkos' speed and time. Lighting teammate Brett Connolly is on the other treadmill. Carolina Hurricanes center Jeff Skinner is waiting to go next. New York Rangers prospect Christian Thomas and St. Louis Blues prospect Anthony Peluso are wiping sweat off their foreheads, back into their hair as they gulp down water and try to recover from the ferociously fast sprint they just completed.

School is in session. Roberts is in charge.

"He could probably have 500 people in here training if he wanted to, but that's not who Gary is," Stamkos told during a recent visit to the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre at Fitness Institute in North York. "He wants to take guys that he knows are good people, he knows are going to work hard and stay true to the program in the gym and through the nutritional aspect."

If you sign up with Roberts, dedication and discipline are not options.

Roberts has no time for clients who aren't serious about strictly following his way, including his three-month training program, which stresses three phases of high-intensity, high-endurance training, and his strict all-organic diet.

The initial phase stresses general strengthening and corrective exercises designed to fix nagging injuries or imbalances that might have developed during an 82-game NHL season. The second phase is focused on strength and power, and the third phase is structured to provide the speed and endurance necessary to be prepared for training camp.

In addition to the personal training with Roberts and Lorne Goldenberg, the program includes specially prepared meals designed by Roberts and his wife, Michelle. He employs a chef who prepares more than 500 meals per day. Goldenberg spent 25 years as a strength coach in the NHL and has been by Roberts' side every summer since Roberts was 17 years old.

"For me the biggest thing is my power and my strength," Skinner told "As an 18-year-old coming into a league with men, it's going to be an adjustment because they're going to be a lot stronger and faster than you, but you've got to try to learn to adjust as quick as you can. [Gary] really gives you the tools to do that. He's the model person for discipline."

Skinner said he has added 10 pounds this summer and is now at 205.

Roberts' client-list includes 15 NHL players, 20 American Hockey League players and 25 Canadian Hockey League players. Five of the NHL players, including Carolina Hurricanes center Jordan Staal and Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, are on a takeaway program, meaning they spend five days each month training with Roberts in Toronto and the rest at home.

A mixture of 15 AHL and Ontario Hockey League players are on Roberts' waiting list -- only because he prefers to take on fewer clients in order to give them the best possible service.

The results are the advertisement.

Stamkos scored 51 goals in 2009-10 after his first summer training with Roberts. He scored 60 goals last season. Skinner won the Calder Trophy in 2011. Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal scored 40 goals last season. Staal signed a 10-year, $60 million contract with Carolina this summer.

"It's about trying to get everybody to understand what type of player they are and what I think they have to do to play in the NHL," Roberts told "So, I treat everybody differently that way. These guys get specific training for their own weaknesses and that's what the summer should be about. The winter becomes a general program, but the summer should be more specific to the players' needs."

Roberts knows what it takes to play in the NHL. He was a star from 1986 to 2009, topping the 50-goal mark in 1991-92 and winning a Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames in 1989.

Roberts chooses to be meticulous and controlling for two reasons:

1. He is passionate about training and nutrition.

2. His career almost came to an end when he was 30, because he didn't train and eat properly in order to play the way he needed to play to survive in the NHL. He does not want the same thing to happen to someone else.

"The key is they understand there is a small window and it's a young man's game, so you can't wait until you're 30 to start figuring it out," Roberts said.

"To be able to relate to a trainer was huge. He's has gone through it, has played in the NHL, knows what the body feels like on a day-to-day basis. Watching him helped too. There was a 42-year-old guy at the time who was the hardest-working guy on our team. I'm sitting there as an 18-year-old thinking I'm working hard, but I'm watching this guy, who has done everything you can in the NHL -- scored 50 goals, won the Stanley Cup, has nothing to prove -- trying to help a kid like me. It was the best thing for me when he asked me to work out."
-- Steven Stamkos on Gary Roberts

Roberts had to retire in 1996 due to severe and repeated neck injuries that left him weak. He was out of the NHL for 18 months, the first six of which were spent trying and failing to come to grips with the reality that his career was finished. He ate poorly, stopped training, and tried to work in an office but couldn't stand it.

Goldenberg, who was Roberts' trainer when he played for the Ottawa 67s in the early 1980s, gave Roberts keys to his new lifestyle by putting him in touch with Dr. Michael Leahy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"He literally did one week of work on me," Roberts said. "Then he sent me to a strength coach in Calgary who was training Olympic athletes at the time, Charles Poliquin. I worked with him for one straight year every day on training and nutrition."

Eventually, Roberts started to think about playing again. He returned to the NHL in 1997 and had five more seasons of 20-plus goals and seven more seasons of at least 40 points before retiring for good in 2009.

Across those dozen years, Roberts' passion for training and dieting grew. He treated the second half of his playing career as "a dry run into my new profession."

Roberts experimented with different training techniques and with new nutrition. He read as many books as he could. In 2004, Roberts opened a gym on Toronto's west side with Goldenberg and former Maple Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe. The business didn't make it because, as Goldenberg said, they were in the wrong location at the wrong time.

Five years later, Roberts started to pour some of his knowledge into Stamkos in daily one-on-one training sessions at his home gym in Uxbridge, Ontario. Stamkos became a 50-goal scorer the following season, and in the summer of 2010, a dozen players wanted to train with Roberts.

The business was born -- and it was about to get too large for his home gym. He had to expand.

"Word started to get out and it went big," Goldenberg told "Now we've got groups of junior-aged kids, young kids like 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds. We have more pros, more American Hockey League guys. It has stepped up to a full-service facility to take care of them and help with their longevity in the game. I know we have had agents calling who want to get guys in."

Once in, they belong to Roberts for the summer. He's their coach, motivator and mentor. It's impossible to miss him in the gym.

"I still train like I play, but I know my body wouldn't last long enough. So this is a nice second career," Roberts said. "I want to help as many guys as I can -- that's my passion."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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