Nostalgia can be a dangerous trap for any NHL organization that hasn't won a lot lately.
Not in the running for this year's Stanley Cup? Then shift the focus back to the sepia-toned days when you were a contender, or actually won a championship.
The Calgary Flames were in a reminiscing frame of mind Thursday, honouring long-time forward Gary Roberts as part of their Alumni Nights program, in advance of a game against the Minnesota Wild. As a 23-year-old, just barely into his career, Roberts was a popular member of the Flames' 1989 Stanley Cup championship team, playing mostly on a line with Joe Nieuwendyk and Hakan Loob.
Roberts and Nieuwendyk started out together in the Whitby, Ont., area, playing against each other as five-year-olds. They were eventually drafted in successive years by the Flames. On the night they won the only championship in franchise history, Roberts was supposed to be on the ice with his regular linemates, when Lanny McDonald jumped on instead and scored the go-ahead goal that would pave the way for their win, making Calgary the only visiting team ever to raise the Stanley Cup at the Montreal Forum.
But Roberts, at 48, is more than just a relic of the past; he became a pro sports visionary. When a series of neck surgeries appeared to have prematurely ended his playing days at age 30, he began to explore, in detail, how improving his levels of nutrition, fitness and sport-specific training might allow him to resurrect his career.
He went from a player who laughingly acknowledged how he failed every fitness test at his first NHL training camp to one of the best-conditioned players in the league. His dedication gave his career an entirely unexpected second chapter, which led him to Carolina, Toronto, Florida, Pittsburgh and finally Tampa Bay, where he basically taught Steven Stamkos just about everything he knows about strength and conditioning.
Roberts now works as a fitness consultant and estimates he has about 35 active NHLers and another 100 or so prospects in his stable.
But for the second half of his career, he was an unofficial conditioning coach, teaching his methods to players such as current Flames centre Matt Stajan, who was a rookie with the Maple Leafs during Roberts's fourth and final year in Toronto."He's a big part of the reason why guys are so fit these days," Stajan said. "You see him today, he looks as or more fit than some guys who are still playing. You look around the league and everybody does that now – with the protein shakes. Guys have nutritionists. I was just lucky to come into the league with Gary, Joe Nieuwendyk and Mats Sundin – guys you could watch and see how they handle themselves as pros."
Of course, Roberts wouldn't have been around to mentor Stajan in 2003, if his career had ended in 1996. That year, he won the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. But he took perseverance and dedication to a new level following his retirement when he took in an October game at the Saddledome and found he couldn't watch.
"I had to leave the arena, it was too emotional for me to sit there in the prime of my career and not be able to play," Roberts said.
"At that point in my life, I didn't know what I was going to do with myself, but I decided, in order to give myself every opportunity to play, I was going to have to change my lifestyle. I started eating better. I started training differently. No one really gave me a chance to play. Even I had my doubts. But the choices I made enabled me to play another 12 or 13 years in the NHL, and that's basically what I try to teach today. I try to give this information to young players and hopefully they can avoid some of the challenges I had."
Besides Stajan, Roberts's ties to the current Flames organization are minimal.
President of hockey operations Brian Burke used to chat frequently on the phone with Roberts when Burke was the NHL's chief disciplinarian and Roberts was getting into trouble all the time.
Then there is current Flames assistant coach Martin Gelinas, a teammate in Carolina and another freakishly fit specimen. Roberts believes Calgary's ability to win games in the third period this season can be attributed, in part, to the team's conditioning levels, inspired by Gelinas.
"It's hard when the assistant coach starts outskating you," Roberts said. "It kinda forces you to keep working hard."
As the game gets faster and the competition for jobs becomes greater every year, Roberts is finding the demand for his services is ever increasing.
"I have guys call me at 30 years old and their careers are in jeopardy because they've got to start working out harder and training harder and taking better care of themselves to play. It used to be 35. Now it's 30.
"It's fun because I'm not married to an organization and I find I get the best prospects from every team."