Tuesday, 10 March 2009

A Drop In Intimidation

That look to the left that Michal Rozsival is getting from Gary Roberts won't be seen again for some time. The man who personified intimidation and commanded respect every time he set foot on the ice has called it career today, this time for good. Gary Roberts officially retired from the NHL today after 21 seasons at the age of 41. The last game he suited up for was an 8-6 victory with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the city he started his career in - Calgary. After being placed on waivers by the Lightning as a cost-cutting measure and not being claimed, it was expected Roberts would choose retirement over an AHL assignment since he announced that the 2008-09 season would be his last. And what a career it was.

Roberts got his start in 1987 with the Calgary Flames, becoming a feared scorer and leader of the Flames' youth movement. Along with players such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnes, Gary Suter, and Mike Vernon, Roberts became a cornerstone for the 1989 Stanley Cup Championship won by the Flames. However, he was forced to step away from the game in 1996 due to a chronic neck injury. His premature retirement was felt throughout the hockey world.

However, it was during this year off that Roberts really embraced the power of nutrition and working out. During his junior years in the OHL with the Ottawa 67's, Roberts let his on-ice talent overshadow his lack of commitment to training. However, his measly two chin-ups at his first Flames training camp had him a little red-faced. "Badger" Bob Johnson made an example out of Roberts and his poor fitness, and this attack on his pride forced Roberts to shape up. In mocking him, Johnson also showed Roberts the importance of fitness, something he has never forgotten since.

"I left that training camp so embarrassed at my performance that I said to myself, 'That will never happen to me again,'" Roberts said to The Canadian Press.

After what was thought to be a career-ending injury, Roberts returned with the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997-98 to play 61 games, recording 20 goals and 29 assists that season. In total, Roberts played 639 games after he retired, posting 181 additional goals and 405 additional points.

He moved on from Carolina to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2000-01 where he got to wear #7 for the Leafs. His reason for choosing #7? It was worn by Lanny McDonald when he was with the Leafs. Of course, McDonald and Roberts were teammates on that 1989 Calgary Stanley Cup-winning team, and are good friends off the ice.

After spending four season in Toronto, Roberts moved south and joined the Florida Panthers in 2005-06 along with his good friend, Joe Nieuwendyk. While he and Nieuwendyk enjoyed solid campaigns, Roberts' intense leadership was emerging. The young Panthers club needed a solid, vocal leader in the dressing room, and Roberts' intense, steely stare on the ice held everyone accountable. It was through his time in Florida that another team on cusp of greatness needed a leader. The Pittsburgh Penguins dealt defenceman Noah Welch to get the hard-as-nails winger, and his impact was immediate.

Roberts helped an emerging Penguins team to a Stanley Cup Final last season despite missing a number of games due to injury. However, his presence in the playoffs was certainly noticeable, mostly due to his abuse of Detroit Red Wing Johan Franzen. While clearly on the decline late in his career, his leadership was a welcomed presence on the Penguins' roster, and even spawned an entire craze - WWGRD? The "What Would Gary Roberts Do?" wristband was one of the most sought-after hockey trinkets, and was compliments of the minds that run The Pensblog. Everyone in Steeltown embraced the WWGRD mantra. He literally was nearing Chuck Norris infamy through the WWGRD campaign.

Of course, after the Penguins run to the Finals, Roberts signed a big contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning who also saw value in the veteran's leadership. The only problem? He was never in the lineup for the Lightning to exude the same leadership and intensity as everyone saw in Pittsburgh.

Congratulations on a wonderful career, Mr. Roberts. You were a fan favorite for a long time, and nearly took over a city with your intensity. As it was said in the Academy Award-winning film, Gladiator:

"Your fame is well deserved, Spaniard. I don't think there's ever been a gladiator to match you. As for this young man, he insists you are Hector reborn. Or was it Hercules? Why doesn't the hero reveal himself and tell us all your real name? You do have a name."

"My name... is Gladiator."

Enjoy your retirement! You've certainly earned it!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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