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Roberts ends illustrious 22-season career

by John McGourty /
File this under: For the Love of Hockey.

Stanley Cup winner Gary Roberts retired Tuesday after 22 seasons, in the words of T.S. Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper.

It could be no other way. Gary Roberts, 42, wasn't the type to hoist the Stanley Cup and then retire. No, if Gary Roberts had that much energy, he'd come back for another year.

Roberts retired two-thirds of the way through his first season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, after previously playing with the Calgary Flames, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.

"I knew the Tampa Bay situation, with 18 games left, I knew they wanted to play the young guys," Roberts said. "I talked with coach Rick Tocchet and he said if I earned the ice time, he would give it to me. Over the past 13 or 14 games, my game was pretty good. I'm not retiring because of health issues. I'm healthier than I was at 30.”

Roberts won the 1989 Stanley Cup with the Flames in his third NHL season and retired less than a year after playing in the Stanley Cup Final with the Penguins. He was hoping another team would pick him up for another Stanley Cup run, but decided to retire when that didn't happen.

"I knew if I didn't get moved at the trade deadline, there was a possibility I wouldn't play another game," Roberts said. "Tampa Bay is out of the playoffs and trying to evaluate their younger players. I felt they would go that route and I understood that. I truly believed I was going to get picked up. I played well enough and I'm healthy."

How much did Gary Roberts love hockey? He came back to play the season after breaking his neck and won the 1996 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. But he played that 1995-96 season in pain and was forced to take off another year, returning again in 1997-98 with the Hurricanes, for whom he posted 20 goals and 29 assists.

Roberts is one of the calmest and most mature NHL players, but sometimes that demeanor lent itself to downplaying serious matters. For instance, he wants you to understand that his neck wasn't broken ... all the way through.

"I had major nerve problems from the nerves being pinched off by bulging discs," Roberts explained. "I lost feeling in my arms, with atrophy and weakness. I had two neck surgeries and had to avoid contact to be able to come back and play. At 30, I thought I had done everything I could, but I kept having 'burners' really bad every time I got hit, so I retired (in 1996). My nerves needed time to regenerate and heal and no one could tell me how long that would take.

"For me, coming back was a huge challenge and made me a stronger person."

That increased maturity and commitment was recognized by general managers around the NHL. Carolina, Toronto, Florida, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay all acquired him to infuse their teams with that spirit, in addition to his rugged, productive play.

"It's an honor to have that reputation," Roberts said. "As you are an older player and your skill level diminishes, you need to bring something else to the table. I think of how I was treated by Lanny McDonald when I broke in with Calgary as a rookie, how he treated the younger players and acted, on and off the ice.

"I know times have changed, but I thought about that when I ran into Eric Staal, or Steve Stamkos or Sidney Crosby. I thought about Lanny and wanted to do the same things. It was an honor to play with those kinds of players. If I had some impact on how they prepared to play the game, that was very satisfying to me."

Roberts was acquired by Pittsburgh at the trading deadline two years ago and had 7 goals and 13 points in 19 games. The Penguins were eliminated in the first round by Ottawa, and Roberts prepared for a second season in Pittsburgh. It didn't go as hoped because he broke his leg in December and played only 38 games and 11 in the playoffs.

"Pittsburgh is another city where I had a great time," Roberts said. "I was treated awesome by the fans and the organization and I had an opportunity to play with Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Colby Armstrong and Ryan Malone. I thought I had an influence on those guys when I played there and they had an influence on me. How they prepared and how committed they were kept me hungry and excited as an older player.

"I broke my leg in December and missed almost three months with that and torn ankle tendons. I knew I would be a small part of it, but it was an awesome feeling for me and really rewarding to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. We played a pretty tough team in Detroit. To get there for the first time in 19 or 20 years was very satisfying and something that I will always cherish. I was only in Pittsburgh for 1 1/2 years, but it felt like I was there a lot longer."

Roberts said he heard that the Flames inquired about his availability and he would have loved to close out his career in Calgary but salary-cap issues caused several teams, including possibly the Flames, to drop out of the bidding. As it turned out, he did play his last game in Calgary, 14:07 minutes of action on March 1, an 8-6 Tampa Bay victory.

"It's fitting," Roberts said. "My daughter called me and said she'd like to be at what could possibly be my last game in Calgary. At that time, I didn't realize it could be the last game in my career. I flew her out there and we had dinner and she watched the game together with other close friends from Calgary. There was a little bit of emotion that night.

"Calgary has a big place in my heart because of winning the Stanley Cup there. It's my best hockey memory. I can remember it like yesterday. If my career was going to end that way, I'm glad it was the place I won a Stanley Cup."

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