TORONTO -- It's not easy to put Gary Roberts out of commission. Steven Stamkos almost did it in with one powerful squeeze this summer.
Stamkos, the Tampa Bay Lightning center, was playfully roughhousing with Roberts, a man 24 years his elder but one many consider to be among the toughest to ever play in the NHL. Stamkos put a vicelike grip on Roberts' bicep, and Roberts' arm started to throb, threatening to at least temporarily ruin his plans for golf that day.
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Instead of anger, all Roberts felt was pride. After all, Roberts and his training methods are ultimately responsible for Stamkos' surge in strength during the past four years.
"If you eat properly and train right at a young age, your body goes through the roof, and that's why Stammer can grab my bicep and I can't golf that day," Roberts told NHL.com during a recent interview at his gym in North York. "I was like, 'My goodness, that's how strong he's gotten.' He's still 22 years old. He's got three or four years left of good quality years of training. He's still got an opportunity to improve.
NHL coaches and players can pin the blame on Roberts for helping Stamkos develop the necessary strength, power and speed to match an already enviable skill set. The Lightning can thank Roberts and his high-energy, fast-paced, nutritionally based training program for helping Stamkos become one of the best players in the world.
And, of course, Roberts can thank Stamkos for helping jump start his post-NHL career, because without the success of his first client, the Gary Roberts High Performance Training Centre might never have been born.
"You see this now," Stamkos told NHL.com, referring to the state-of-the-art facility built specifically for Roberts inside the Fitness Institute. "Four years ago it was Gary and I in his home gym."
In 2009, Roberts, then with the Lightning as a player, invited Stamkos into his home gym in Uxbridge, Ontario to train and learn about nutrition in a one-on-one setting. The idea was that proper training and nutrition could help Stamkos, the No. 1 pick in the 2008 NHL Draft, build on his 46-point rookie season.
According to Roberts, Brian Lawton, then Lightning general manager, wanted Stamkos to spend the summer training in Minnesota, which meant living in a hotel. Roberts and coach Rick Tocchet figured out a more convenient way to help the rising star.
Instead of living 1,000 miles from home, Stamkos could drive the 20 or so minutes to Roberts' house to train and eat with someone who knew exactly what it takes to survive and thrive in the NHL, both as a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old.
"To be able to relate to a trainer was huge," Stamkos said. "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."
After his first summer of training and eating the Roberts' way, Stamkos busted out with 51 goals and 95 points. That was enough to sell him on the program.
He could feel the difference all over the ice. Although it was invisible to the naked eye, Stamkos had developed enough strength and endurance to want to engage in a physical game.
"You can definitely feel it when you have the puck and guys are trying to get it but you're fighting them off," Stamkos said. "You can feel it when you go into the corner and the guy is not expecting you to give him a shoulder, but you do and he's gone and you have the puck."
Center - TBL
GOALS: 60 | ASST: 37 | PTS: 97
SOG: 303 | +/-: 7
Stamkos signed back up with Roberts for the summer of 2010, returned to working out five to six times a week and eating the organic concoctions Roberts' required of him. He had 19 goals in 19 games to start the following season and was generating some 50-in-50 buzz -- even Wayne Gretzky was talking about him.
Stamkos never got to 50 goals. He finished with 45, having scored seven in his final 30 games.
Roberts has an explanation for the slump: Stamkos stopped training and did not maintain his fitness level.
"He could feel it, and now he gets it," Roberts said. "I'm not asking him to be in the gym every day during the winter, but twice a week he needs to be doing something to work on his body so he doesn't get those imbalances. He didn't lift. He had a few minor injuries that affected his ability to train and he didn't do it, and then he felt he was getting sluggish and lacked energy."
Stamkos said he didn't cheat himself last season. He scored 60 goals and had 97 points.
"I saw a difference," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman told NHL.com. "He took it to another level."
Yzerman, a Hall of Fame player in his own right, said nothing Stamkos does from here on out in his career will surprise him -- not even 70 goals.
"The sky is the limit, most of all because he's got drive," Yzerman said. "He loves to play and he's got drive. The best players have that. I can't tell you he's not going to score 60 every year -- 70, I don't know. He's certainly capable of it because of the skill, the drive -- he's motivated."
They push each other from warm-ups to cool-downs. They challenge each other to jump higher, run faster, and to pump more iron than the next guy. Roberts lords over them like a controlling coach, motivator, friend and confidant.
Stamkos wouldn't have it any other way. At this point in his career, he doesn't know any other way.
"I have always had confidence in my skill, but I'm starting to have confidence in my physical ability coming," Stamkos said. "That is huge."