One of the ways the Dallas Stars have addressed that task is by establishing their own farm club just three hours away with the AHL Texas Stars, who are based in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park.
Another, more innovative approach the Stars have adopted is hiring former NHL star Gary Roberts as the club’s new player development consultant.
Roberts, who retired after the 2008-09 season following a 22-year NHL career, had already established a highly-successful personal training program which significantly helped Stars winger James Neal, and the organization hopes he can impart his wisdom and experience, not to mention his fitness expertise, to its prospects and young players.
“Obviously, I know Gary well and what he’s all about,” said Stars General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who was a childhood friend of Roberts and an NHL teammate in Calgary, Toronto and Florida. “He’s a first-class person and I think our young players will benefit from his years of experience and we feel that he will help our young players understand what it takes to be a true professional.”
Roberts has been in North Texas for the past week or so, working closely with Stars strength and conditioning coach J.J. McQueen on the training aspect of things, while also getting a chance to know the Stars players and their abilities. Over the course of the season, he will also spend some time in Austin with the AHL prospects and also travel to meet with Stars prospects still playing junior hockey or college.
“For me, it’s about forming relationships right now and getting to know these guys,” said Roberts, who compiled 438 goals and 909 points in 1,224 career NHL regular season contests along with 32 goals and 93 points in 130 playoff games. “Then, as the winter goes on, I’ll start to visit some of the top prospects and get a chance to talk to them about what it’s like to play in the National Hockey League and some of the things they need to do to make sure they give themselves the best possible chance to make it - really teach them how to be a real good professional.
“It’s not just getting here, it’s having the ability to do the work to stay here. That’s part of my experience and part of what I went through in order to play 22-plus years, is you learn to be a good pro. I learned a lot about injuries and a lot about challenges, not that I handled them all exactly right, but you definitely learn from your mistakes, so hopefully, I’ll be able to pass on some of this information to these young players.”
After a year-plus where he was just tangentially connected to hockey by his summer training programs for different players, Roberts was happy to once again be involved with the game and have the chance to pass along the benefits of his experience.
“I’m glad to be back,” declared Roberts, who actually retired for a year back in 1996-97 following his second neck surgery, but returned to play 11 more productive seasons. “I don’t think anything will fulfill how you felt as a player. There’s nothing like that, but for me, my passion is still preparation. I really enjoyed preparing for the season, I really enjoyed preparing every day on game day, and I think I learned a lot through those years and that’s information that I now have, that hopefully, I can help younger players prepare, whether that’s off the ice, on the ice, what they’re eating. Those are all little key pieces to the puzzle that I was able to learn over the course of my career.”
One of the most important lessons Roberts discovered was that in order for him to continue to be an effective NHLer into his 30s, he needed to fine-tune his body into a more streamlined machine.
“At age 30, I retired with two really bad neck surgeries, and the only reason I was able to come back to play is because I changed my lifestyle off the ice,” reported Roberts, who surpassed the 20-goal plateau 12 times in his career, with a high of 53 in 1991-92. “It wasn’t really anything different I did on the ice, but it was living differently and with the schedule the way it is and the speed of the game the way it is, you can’t hide out there any more. If you haven’t taken good care of yourself off the ice, eventually you get exposed on the ice. And I really learned that through nutrition, through rest, through proper training, you’re able to perform at a higher level more regularly. You can’t play into your 30s at a high level if nutritionally, and with rest, if you’re not doing the right things. It’s a lot more than just playing hockey. It’s body maintenance, I call it. You’ve got to do a lot of body maintenance to make sure you stay healthy, number one, and perform at a high level, number two.”
One other interesting point Roberts makes is that players need to adjust their workout routines as they get older to accommodate the physiological changes that accompany the aging process.
“As you get older, you get slower, so it means more speed work,” said Roberts, who, along with Nieuwendyk, contributed to the Calgary Flames 1989 Stanley Cup championship. “Usually by the time you’re 30, you’ve got a really good cardiovascular base, an aerobic base, so you don’t want to do too much of that kind of training, because doing too much aerobic training, you might have a good heart, but you get weaker and slower, so we do way more power stuff. So more short-distance sled pulls, more plyometrics, still heavy lifting, but combined with an explosive exercise. It’s always about stimulating your nervous system when you’re getting older.
“That’s why it’s important to have a good staff around, because everybody needs specific stuff to continue to be an elite player or to continue to be healthy. You’re always going to have aches and pains that hold you back, but you got to find ways to get around that so the guy still gets maximum training without risking injury. And that’s basically what I’m going to try to help J.J. with and help the younger players with.”
It’s clear that his off-season training work with Neal has had an impact. The 23-year-old Neal, who has been training with Roberts in the summertime since he was 15, has jumped out to a strong start in his third year in the NHL, compiling five goals and 10 points - each of which rank second on the Stars - over the first 10 games.
“He kind of taught me how you got to take care of your body,” said Neal of Roberts. “And what it takes to make the jump - at that time (I started working out with him), it was the jump into the OHL, and it just led on from the jump into the OHL, and then the AHL, and now the NHL. This summer was great for me, I worked out right at his house with him. He just knows what you got to do to become a better player. It was stuff that I can grasp and I know what I got to do. He just pushes you, he’s great for helping you succeed and achieve your goals and that’s what he did for me this summer. It’s exciting to have him here and it’ll be good for all the guys. I’m looking forward to working with him here in the future.”
With his family remaining back in the Toronto area, Roberts is thankful for his chance to combine a return to hockey with his training expertise, without being fully immersed in it like he would if he started coaching or scouting. This scenario offers him the best of both worlds.
“We have three young children under the age of five, so thank God for nannies and grandmas or I wouldn’t be able to do this,” Roberts laughed. “I love being at home with my family after 20 years of playing, but this gives me an opportunity to get back in the game where I’m not needed to be here every day. But I’m working for an organization that I believe is heading in the right direction and I respect the people that are part of it. Obviously, Joe Nieuwendyk and Les Jackson, their reputations speak for themselves and I wanted to be a part of something that I think is going to be a good thing. I have great respect for those two guys and I look forward to being a part of the organization.”
Welcome aboard, Gary!