It would have been easy for Gary Roberts to remain retired from the NHL.
He could have rested on his 257 goals, 505 points and one Stanley Cup championship (1989) in 10 seasons with Calgary.
But, Roberts, who sat out one season (1996-97) after undergoing two eight-hour surgeries to repair nerve and disc damage in his neck – the result of playing his physically demanding power game, doesn’t like to take the easy path.
He likes to sweat and work hard for every achievement on the ice.
Roberts made a gallant return to the NHL with Carolina in the 1997-98 season. However, it wasn’t so much a comeback as it was the debut of a “new” Gary Roberts.
It was a leaner, sculpted and dedicated Roberts – the same player who is still making an impact in the NHL with the Penguins at age 40.
“You don’t play at 40 years old unless you take care of yourself. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to come back and play at age 30 after two neck surgeries. I knew that the only way to do that was to change my lifestyle and change eating habits and my training routine,” he said. “I always worked hard, but not with much of a purpose. So, between the ages of 30 and 40, I have basically changed the way I live and it’s given me this opportunity to continue to play hockey, which I am thankful for.
“For me, it’s a quality of life change; it’s not something I do just because I play hockey. I know I feel better when I eat right and take care of myself. I recover a lot better and that’s why I am able to play at this age. It really is something that I enjoy doing, too,” he continued. “Once you stop enjoying the preparation part of it, that’s when you know you’ll be done because at 40 you have to do a little more preparation to be able to play. You need soft tissue work on your days off, cold tubs, extra nutrition. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to have any chance at more longevity.”
Roberts, who has a chiseled physique and the most-intense physical training regimen of any Penguins player, doesn’t look like he’s been playing in the NHL longer than teammate Jordan Staal has been alive.
“There are some days where, believe me, I feel like I am 40,” Roberts said with a laugh. “You definitely need to pay more attention to what you do on your days off. There is more preparation. As long as your lifestyle is pretty clean and you get your rest, you have a chance at feeling good. Back-to-back games are tough, especially for me. No matter what I do, it’s a little tougher for me. Years ago, back-to-back games were fun.”
In order to help his body recover from the grueling demands of an NHL game, Roberts turns to one of his famous energy shakes – an all-organic concoction.
“They are not really special. Basically, I use it mostly for postgame recovery,” he said. “What I normally use is some protein powder, some fruit, some yogurt, coconut water – just some stuff to re-hydrate myself and replenish. I train really hard, so I am a fan of getting a gram of carbs per pound of body weight in right away along with some protein. I do that after every game and it seems to help my recovery a little bit the next day.”
Roberts, who played with the Maple Leafs from 2000-04, parlayed his love of physical fitness into ownership of a personal training facility in Toronto called Station Seven. However, Roberts closed it down when he signed with Florida prior to the 2005-06 season.
“I loved it, but it’s a tough business to run when you’re a couple thousand miles away,” he said. “I love the gym and I love spending time there. It’s not the best business in the world, though, if you can’t be there every day to manage it.”
Also a standout lacrosse player, Roberts had the chance to play professionally in the National Lacrosse League during the work stoppage that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season. Roberts was taken by the Calgary Roughnecks in the sixth round of the 2004 NLL draft, but did not play.
“It was funny. I guess they thought maybe I’d come out of retirement,” he said with a laugh. “I am not really too sure, I never heard anything from them, so I think it was a public relations move more than anything. I did enjoy playing and I love to play, but I don’t think I could move fast enough anymore to play out there. It’s a great sport.”
He and longtime friend Joe Nieuwendyk were among a handful of NHL players drafted into the NLL that season. It was no fluke – in 1985, Nieuwendyk and Roberts played on the Whitby Warriors team that won the Minto Cup as Canadian junior lacrosse champions.
“We played hockey and lacrosse together. Nieuwendyk was one of the best lacrosse players in the country. He was definitely the best player I played with. I was more of a protector, I think. I took care of Joe more than anything else,” he said with a laugh. “I enjoyed playing. I had some half-decent years playing lacrosse. I only started playing when I was 12 and stopped when I was 18. So, I only played six years before I had to pack it in because I got drafted [into the NHL].
“It was a great game and great for hand-eye coordination and for conditioning in the summer. The only downfall I’d say is that, eventually, I had some neck problems and I think it had to do with playing two contact and pretty physical sports year-round,” he continued. “I’d play hockey all winter, which is pretty physical, and then lacrosse all summer, where you get cross-checked daily. So, I think it had something to do with my neck injuries. But, it had a big benefit to me, also. But, hockey was my first love.”
With any future career in lacrosse ruled out, Roberts, who first understood the importance of physical fitness while playing for former Penguins coach “Badger” Bob Johnson in Calgary, wants to pass on his knowledge to younger hockey players when his playing career is finished.
“That’s somewhere down the line. I’d like to be involved in player development somewhere working with young guys. I feel like I have been fortunate to be around the right people to give me the advice that has helped my career,” he said. “I would like to pass that advice on to some young kids. I wish I would have known this stuff when I was 20; I had to wait until I was 30 to figure this stuff out. The kids that take grasp of some of the good information that’s out there when they are 18 or 19 or 20, they have so much more opportunity to be better players throughout their careers.”