One More Chance Forced to retire in 1996 because of a neck injury, Toronto's Gary Roberts, 36, is back--fitter and better than ever

May 26, 2002

The burning pain in his neck is long gone, as are the muscle
spasms that once rippled down his back. The season's everyday
dents are mending as well: A torn rib-cage muscle has healed,
the bloodied knuckles have scabbed over, and the shiner that
recently ringed his left eye has faded to a purple whisper. At
this moment, lounging in an armchair in the lobby of a Cary,
N.C., hotel last Saturday morning, 36-year-old left wing Gary
Roberts of the Toronto Maple Leafs is relatively healthy--an
important distinction for someone whose NHL days were nearly cut
short by injury not that long ago. "I was 30, in the prime of my
career, and I had it taken from me," Roberts says of his
18-month retirement, which began in June 1996, because a series
of collisions caused nerve and disk damage in his neck. "Now,
every year I play is a bonus. My career can end at any time, and
I know that, so I try to enjoy every day. I've been given a
second chance."

With injured teammates falling all around him (10 regulars have
been out of the lineup for at least one game since the middle of
the second round), Roberts has become the leader of Toronto's
march through these Demolition Derby playoffs. After Sunday's
2-1 loss in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes, in which
Roberts set up Toronto's goal and played with gusto, the Eastern
Conference finals were tied at one game apiece. Though he was
sixth on his team in scoring during the regular season, Roberts
was tied for the NHL playoff scoring lead through Sunday, with
seven goals and 12 assists. His timing has been equally
impressive. In the conference semifinals against the Ottawa
Senators he ended Game 2 in the third overtime by snaking a
wrister from the slot between goalie Patrick Lalime's pads to
even the series. He also scored game-tying goals in Game 6
against the Senators and Game 7 of the conference quarterfinals
against the New York Islanders. "Gary has one gear, and it's
go," says Toronto coach Pat Quinn. "He plays with a lack of
respect for his body."

For a while that was a problem. The No. 1 draft pick of the
Calgary Flames in 1984, Roberts won the Stanley Cup in '89 and
was a two-time All-Star before the neck ailment caused him to
miss a total of 87 matches during the '94-95 and '95-96 seasons
and then announce his retirement. Two surgeries left him with a
mass of scar tissue around the disks in his neck and with
atrophied muscles and limited mobility in his neck and upper
body. Although he could perform everyday tasks, Roberts was
unable to exercise rigorously, and by November '96 he was
disgusted with his deteriorating physical condition. "After six
months of doing nothing but getting fat," he says, "I looked at
myself in the mirror and said, 'I refuse to live my life like
this. I refuse to get out of shape after being a pro athlete.'
It wasn't about coming back to play hockey, it was about getting
healthy for life."

Roberts's chiropractor, Michael Leahy, referred him to Charles
Poliquin, a Calgary-based strength coach, who started Roberts on
a nutritional and conditioning regimen that radically reshaped
his body. From November 1996 through September '97, Roberts
trained daily with Poliquin, even relocating him to Phoenix so
the pair could live in adjacent condos and train away from the
media attention his workouts were generating in Calgary.
Poliquin began by overhauling Roberts's diet. Gone were the beer
and chicken-wing dinners that Roberts usually ate on the road.
In their place were meals composed largely of protein--fish,
eggs, green vegetables--and posttraining supplement shakes, a
menu Roberts still follows.

As Roberts began to feel better, he noticed that his neck had
improved, and he started to entertain notions of getting back on
the ice. Poliquin revised Roberts's training program to stress
"functional strength," meaning Roberts would train for
hockey-specific situations. By substituting track sprints and
hill runs for the three-and five-mile jogs that Roberts had
favored, Poliquin improved Roberts's speed over the short
distances needed on the ice. A switch in weightlifting drills
from exercises like curls to squats and snatches allowed Roberts
to beef up his legs and upper body, adding power that would be
needed along the boards and in the corners.

Roberts's strengthening of his body not only allowed him to make
a comeback, which he did successfully with the Hurricanes in
1997-98 (he was traded to Carolina in August '97), but also let
him regain the ruthless power-forward style that in '91-92 made
him the second player in league history (after Kevin Stevens) to
score at least 50 goals and get 200 or more penalty minutes in
the same season. Subtle as a sledgehammer and equally as potent,
Roberts constantly crashes his 6'1", 190-pound body into
defenders and dive-bombs the offensive zone in pursuit of loose
pucks.

"The thing to remember when you're trying to defend Gary is that
he never takes the long route to anywhere, and when he gets the
puck, he's taking the shortest route possible to the net," says
Carolina coach Paul Maurice, for whom Roberts played for three
seasons before signing as a free agent with the Leafs in July
2000. "You've got to get between him and the net, and that's not
fun."

Roberts is at his best around the crease because he's big enough
to screen the goaltender and strong enough to keep defenders
from pushing him away. "He's one of the toughest guys to knock
out of there or to even move his stick," says Alyn McCauley, who
centers Roberts and right wing Jonas Hoglund. "I take the puck
wide on a two-on-one, and I look for Gary to go to the net."

"Gary started playing hockey when he was five, and he was big
for his age," his father, Herb, a retired steelworker who raised
Gary in Whitby, Ont., says with a laugh. "That's why his game is
the way it is--he's always been aggressive." That aggressiveness
surfaced in Game 5 of the series against the Islanders when
Roberts leveled New York defenseman Kenny Jonsson from behind,
sending Jonsson crashing into the boards and causing him to
sustain a concussion. (Roberts was assessed a charging major but
was not suspended. He said that he was simply finishing his
check.) Two games later Roberts plowed into Islanders goalie
Chris Osgood on a rush, kneeing Osgood in the midsection. "When
you play that intense, stuff like that happens," says Leafs
defenseman Nathan Dempsey. "Gary never intends to hurt anybody."

As the injuries pile up in Toronto, the Maple Leafs must
overcome history to win their first Stanley Cup since 1967. No
team has taken the chalice after playing seven-game series in
the first two rounds, as the Leafs have. Toronto, though, has
the benefit of Roberts's remarkable wrecking-ball act and the
inspiration of the hardest-working man in hockey. "He leads by
example," Leafs winger Tie Domi says of Roberts. "He plays every
shift like it's his last."

Roberts knows that it could be, but he's not ready for that. Not
now, not yet.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA IMMOVABLE OBJECT Roberts is especially tough at the net, where defenders such as Carolina's Aaron Ward struggle to move him. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO HELPING HAND McCauley (above) has had a stellar postseason, benefiting from having Roberts as a linemate and inspiration.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)