While Gary Roberts
dealt with a number of injuries during the 2007-08 season, he was able to return in time for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals versus Ottawa.
That night – after becoming the oldest player to score multiple goals (two) in a playoff game at 41 years, 322 days in the Pens’ 4-0 win – Roberts threw a huge hit on an opposing player with 12 seconds left in regulation and was tossed from the remainder of the game after a scrum ensued.
As he skated off, Roberts was surrounded by four Senators players and tried to fight all of them from the runway – much to the delight of the home crowd, who showered him with chants of “GA-RY! GA-RY!” as he eventually went to the locker room, yelling the whole way there.
At that point in his career, Roberts was already legendary throughout the hockey community for his work ethic, commitment and dedication to his training and nutrition (as well as his veteran leadership), but his performance that night elevated him to cult hero status here in Pittsburgh. There were even bracelets made emblazoned with the letters WWGRD, which stands for “What Would Gary Roberts Do?”
The phrase became legendary as well, so much so that Roberts jokingly referenced it on Wednesday after it was announced that he would be returning to Pittsburgh to lead the Sports Performance Center at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry.
“Probably the WWGRD bracelets people have,” Roberts laughed when asked why he decided to come back. “My son is still walking around with those things. Honestly, it was just one of those things where I came to town, we were getting close to playoffs and for me, playoff time in Pittsburgh was incredible. The weather was getting nice, you’re walking to the rink, the flowers are blooming. There’s thousands of people beating us to the rink, I remember them chanting my name when I was walking into the arena and I was like, this is crazy. So it’s just those feelings I had for Pittsburgh.
“How I was treated by the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, the fans and the media during my time as a player truly left a humbling mark on me. I fell in love with the fans and the organization. … Just every opportunity I get to come back to Pittsburgh, I’ve taken it and I’m thrilled to be getting this opportunity to join UPMC and the Sports Performance Center.”
Here in Pittsburgh – where Roberts will spend about one week each month – he will oversee the philosophy and off-ice training regimen at a Sports Performance Center that will focus on hockey but encompass athletes of every sport.
He will also consult with the full-time UPMC staff who, along with him, will work personally with players from every echelon of hockey – professional, collegiate, junior, youth (including the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite) – as well as athletes of all ages and levels, including a morning program for business executives.
It’s a big coup for UPMC to get the 48-year-old Roberts to be the “name, face and attitude” of the Sports Performance Center, as he developed what he called “a serious passion for preparation” after his career ended at the age of 30 following two neck surgeries.
Roberts was out of the league for 18 months before adapting a strict, rigorous new lifestyle that included many changes to his training techniques, strategies and diet and allowed him to return to the NHL and play the game he loved for 12 more years.
Upon retiring in 2009 after one year with Tampa Bay following one-plus seasons with the Penguins, Roberts began using that knowledge to train his Lightning teammate Steven Stamkos – who scored 50 goals the following season. From there, Roberts’ client list grew and he ended up opening the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre in North York, Ontario.
He’s become the best in the business, so when Penguins president and CEO David Morehouse and those involved in the hiring process started thinking of who they wanted in that role, Roberts’ name was the first that came to mind.
“When we started thinking about who we would talk to and who we would bring in, we sat back and we said well, in everything we do we try to be the best,” Morehouse said. “So we thought about who’s the best at this, and it’s Gary Roberts. And when we talked to him, he was interested. He liked the idea of the place. He liked that it was unique, that you were able to pool all these things together. And he likes Pittsburgh, that’s the other thing. In a short period of time, he feels like he played for the Penguins for a long time. He became ingrained in the community here and I think he was happy to come back and have an opportunity to come back.
"He epitomizes everything we want to bring here to this facility and everything we as the Pittsburgh Penguins organization want to bring to Pittsburgh."
To be clear, Roberts will not be working with the Penguins in any official capacity. His focus will be solely on overseeing the performance training at the Sports Performance Center, which includes the programming, exercise selection, nutrition, and just plain old teaching.
“I think a lot of stuff I do in Toronto is teaching the parents and the kids how to grocery shop, how to cook, how to eat,” he said. “I always tell guys, you’re with me two hours a day. What you do away from here for the next 22 hours is more important. Are you hydrating? Are you eating properly? Are you sleeping your 8-9 hours, you young guys that are trying to grow and get stronger?
"There’s just so many more elements to fitness than just playing hockey, or whatever sport they’re in, and that’s what I try to teach. Yes, we do a lot of sport-specific exercise selections, but overall, high performance training is powered by what you do away from the facility as much as what you do in it.”
Roberts will continue to train individual NHL players and operate the Gary Roberts Performance Center in Toronto. He’ll spend a lot of time here initially, but once the Sports Performance Center is up and running, Roberts will commute down to Pittsburgh for about one week per month.
“I’m in Toronto, but it’s only a five-hour drive for me to come down here so it’s not a big deal,” Roberts said. “My wife did it. When I was a player here, we’d go on road trips and she’d drive back to Toronto. So it’s a real thrill for me to be part of a facility like this. It’s really coming together. It’s going to be a phenomenal place for people to become better educated, more fit and better prepared for their sport.”