If Joe Nieuwendyk
needs a stand-in at any point during Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, Gary Roberts
will be on site and is available for hire.
Hey, it's the least Nieuwendyk can do for his childhood friend and bodyguard.
"I played lacrosse with Joe, he was our best player, and I had to stick up for him. We got to the NHL, he became a 50-goal scorer, and I would have to protect him," Roberts told NHL.com while laughing at the memories. "So, he owes me. I took care of that guy his whole life. I told him if he's too busy to go get inducted I'll go get inducted for him."
Roberts unfortunately is going to have to settle for the second-best option -- watching his dear friend, former teammate and current boss gain acceptance into hockey's exclusive fraternity of legends.
"I played lacrosse with Joe, he was our best player, and I had to stick up for him. We got to the NHL, he became a 50-goal scorer, and I would have to protect him. So, he owes me. I took care of that guy his whole life. I told him if he's too busy to go get inducted I'll go get inducted for him." -- Gary Roberts on his relationship with Joe Nieuwendyk
Nieuwendyk, currently the GM of the Dallas Stars
, will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame alongside Doug Gilmour
, Ed Belfour
and Mark Howe
on Monday. Roberts, who also can call Belfour and Gilmour former teammates, will be in the audience when Nieuwendyk is at the podium delivering his induction speech.
"We've had a strong bond our whole life, basically," said Roberts, who now works for Nieuwendyk as the Stars' Player Development Consultant. "Seeing him being inducted is a pretty special thing for me."
Nieuwendyk and Roberts started playing minor hockey in Whitby, Ont., when they were 5 years old, beginning as rivals and eventually becoming teammates. They remained teammates on the lacrosse field, playing for the Whitby Warriors, and won the Minto Cup together in 1984.
Roberts knew then the kind of athlete Nieuwendyk was.
"I think that's what made Joe Nieuwendyk
a great player -- he was a great athlete," Roberts said. "That's what I tell guys today. You can't just be a good hockey player; you need to be an all-round good athlete. Whether it was lacrosse, hockey, track and field, rugby or football, Joe was a great athlete, and I think that's what made him such a great scorer and player in the NHL."
Roberts went on to play in the Ontario Hockey League with the Ottawa 67s, while Nieuwendyk chose the college route and became a Hobey Baker finalist at Cornell.
HALL OF FAME
Nieuwendyk a name brand
Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer
"Joe Who" the papers asked when the Flames drafted him in 1985 -- but within four years he was a Calder Trophy winner and a Cup champion, just the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. READ MORE ›
Calgary selected Roberts with the No. 12 pick in the 1984 NHL Draft. A year later, the Flames took Nieuwendyk in the second round with the No. 27 pick.
The childhood buddies became full-time NHL players with the Flames in 1987-88, when Nieuwendyk won the Calder Trophy by totaling 51 goals and 92 points.
They became Stanley Cup champions together the following season when Calgary won Game 6 at Montreal Forum.
"We hung out every day together in our careers in Calgary," Roberts said. "We ate lunch together, were at the rink playing ping pong together. It was really special for me to have my childhood pal to go through those challenges of becoming a National Hockey League player, going through those times when you're learning how to be a consistent pro every day."
Nieuwendyk and Roberts weren't just either other's wingmen. Roberts said Nieuwendyk was integral in helping him develop into a dual threat as a power forward that could put up 50 goals in a season as well as act as a policeman for his linemates.
"Early in my career I was battling, fighting a lot and trying to earn my spot in the National Hockey League," Roberts said. "I remember him saying to me, 'You don't need to do that anymore, man, don't worry about those guys.'"
The message stuck with Roberts, who scored 39 goals in 1989-90, a career-high 53 in 1991-92, another 38 the following season and 41 more in 1993-94.
"I always felt like (fighting) was a part of my game and you have to make it in whatever role is there for you, but Joe said to me in a faceoff, 'Just play, our line is going good, you don't need to fight that guy,'" Roberts recalled. "Once I recognized that, I ended up having more success offensively.
"It wasn't like I became a soft player, but I didn't feel like I had to fight as much to play. I focused more on scoring, and obviously it is more fun to score goals than it is to fight. I'm glad I figured that out earlier in my career than later. I definitely would not have if Joe didn't give me that message."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl