During a trying period between the 1994-95 and 96-97 seasons, Gary Roberts’ career was in serious jeopardy. A bad neck injury forced him to play just eight games in 94-95, 35 in 95-96 and miss the 96-97 season entirely. For many people, that might be enough to call it a career at 30 years old.
Although injuries hounded him for the rest of his playing days, Roberts developed intense training regimens that helped him remain an NHL player until he was 43 years old, spending his final season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 08-09. (Before that, his intensity and grit made him something of a folk legend with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as the “WWGRD?” movement exploded.)
Roberts’ impressive longevity and training methods have made him a sought-after fitness guru in hockey circles, especially after disciples such as Steven Stamkos and Jeff Skinner raved about his process and went on to have exceptional 2010-11 seasons. The Toronto Sun’s Dave Feschuk spotlights Roberts’ path to become such a well-respected strength and conditioning coach in this story.
Roberts spoke about his own training camp struggle when he was 18 and how he fought back from that neck injury at 30.
“I was a skinny fat guy, that’s who I was. Not only was I skinny and weak, but I had high body fat. So basically I had very little lean muscle mass. I didn’t weight train back then. I certainly didn’t have great nutrition. I was a cardiovascular guy . . . I played hockey. I played lacrosse. I thought I was in great shape at 18 years old. (The Calgary Flames) threw me on a pull-up bar for my first fitness test, and I did 1½ pull-ups. I was pretty embarrassed by that.”
“I realized, after what I went through as a player, making a comeback (from a devastating neck injury at age 30) and playing those extra 13 years, that I was only able to do that through the great advice that I got from friends in the nutrition world, and the strength and fitness world. I wish I had that information when I was 18, 19, 20 years old. To be able to pass that on to these guys, and see the way they’re excelling, it’s gratifying.”
Roberts’ attention to detail – especially when it comes to dietary habits – has become well known. Last summer, Stamkos (jokingly?) said he was worried that he would receive a little heat from Roberts when cameras caught him eating popcorn. There’s a method to that madness, though, as proper training and nutrition can make a significant difference in a punishing league that doesn’t provide much margin for error.
“I’m a little over the top with this stuff, you realize,” he said. “I’ve never done anything half-assed before. And I want these athletes to have the right information. Even if they apply the majority of what I tell them . . . they’re going to be way better off. The only reason I played in the NHL until I was 43 was because of what I did off the ice.”
With all the money teams like the Lightning have invested in players like Stamkos, the hope is that they carry that same level of commitment.
The Dallas Stars probably hope that Roberts has a similar effect on their young players as the team’s player development consultant. (Maybe Jamie Benn will have an easier time retaining his locomotive-like energy over a full season with Roberts whispering in his ear?) From the sounds of things, he might be the fittest man for that job.