He began his pro career with the Calgary Flames so Gary Roberts feels it was only fitting that his final NHL game was played in the Alberta city.
Roberts recorded an assist in Tampa Bay’s 8-6 win at the Saddledome on March 1. He didn’t know it at the time, but that was to be the last time he’d suit up in an NHL game.
Roberts, 42, ended his 21-year career Tuesday, officially announcing his retirement during a conference call with reporters. The move was expected after the Lightning placed the veteran forward on waivers last week and he was not claimed.
Roberts broke in with the Flames in 1987 and won his only Stanley Cup title with the team two years later.
“For me, it’s a little emotional,” he said, his voice wavering. “Calgary has got a big place in my heart.
“Obviously winning a Stanley Cup there was my best hockey memory that I can remember. So very fitting and thankful, actually, that if it was going to end that way, that it ended where I won a Stanley Cup.”
Roberts also retired from the Flames in 1996 due to a chronic neck injury, but returned to the NHL the following season with Carolina.
“I said when I came back I would take it a year at a time and I felt every year was a bonus year for me,” he said. “I never fathomed I’d last this long.
“For me, coming back from that was a huge challenge and made me a stronger player and stronger person.”
Roberts appeared in 639 games following his neck injury, recording 181 goals and 405 points.
Overall, Roberts played in 1,224 career games, registering 438 goals, 471 assists and 2,560 penalty minutes. He enjoyed his best NHL season in ’91-’92 when he had 53 goals and 37 assists with Calgary.
The Toronto native also skated with Carolina (1997-2000), Toronto (2000-2004), Florida (2005-2007) and Pittsburgh (2007-2008) before signing a one-year, US$1.25-million deal with Tampa last summer.
The three-time all-star also played in 130 career playoff games, recording 32 goals, 93 points and 332 penalty minutes.
Roberts was dealt from Florida to Pittsburgh last season and helped the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup final against Detroit, his first return to the NHL championship since the ’89 win with Calgary.
Although Detroit defeated the Penguins, Roberts said he benefited from being part of a young Pittsburgh lineup that featured such stars as captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
“To see how they prepared as young players and how committed they were really kept me hungry and excited as an older player,” he said. “I was only in Pittsburgh a year and a half, but I really felt like I was there a lot longer than that.”
The rugged winger had three goals and four assists with the Lightning in only 30 games this season. He missed 33 games with an elbow injury.
“Gary has done everything we could have asked or expected of him this year,” Lightning GM Brian Lawton said in a statement. “Although we wish things had been better to date for the club, we are extremely grateful to Gary for his contributions both on and off the ice.
“His leadership, professionalism and guidance will be felt for years because our young players were able to watch, listen and learn from one of the true greats of the game.”
Roberts said he understands why Tampa felt it had to set its sights on allowing its younger players to develop. However, Roberts was surprised he wasn’t picked up by another NHL team.
“I really thought I’d played well enough and I was healthy, that I’d get one more crack at it,” he said. “I truly believed I was going to get picked up.”
Roberts lists his time with Calgary and Toronto as career highlights, especially being able to wear the No. 7 Leafs jersey of Lanny McDonald, his former Flames teammate.
“It was very special to me that Toronto was the only city that I wore No. 7,” he said. “I wore it because of a guy named Lanny McDonald wore it for years.
“It really is emotional for me.”
During his pro career Roberts earned a reputation for being a fitness freak who really watched what he ate and took tremendous pride in always being in top-notch condition.
However, Roberts admitted, he wasn’t always that way. He didn’t take working out seriously during his junior hockey career with the Ottawa 67’s, a team he helped win the Memorial Cup in 1983-’84.
But that all changed when Roberts said he was embarrassed by the fact he could only do two chin-ups during his first training camp with Calgary.
“Off-ice conditioning wasn’t big in Ottawa, you just played hockey and that was it,” Roberts said. “I played hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer and I wasn’t a weightlifter, I wasn’t a real fitness guy.
“I got to camp and Badger Bob (former Flames coach Bob Johnson) made an example of me. At the time I didn’t really like him much for it but in the end I sure thanked him in the end because he had a huge influence on how I prepare every year now.
“I left that training camp so embarrassed at my performance that I said to myself, ‘That will never happen to me again.”‘
To the point where Roberts went out and purchased a chin-up bar that fit in door jams and every time he went through a door he’d make sure he did a few.
The following year at training camp when Roberts was tested, he did 16 under Johnson’s watchful eye.
“From that time on, obviously, chin-ups were high on my list as far as training. But I can say at this point I’m never going to do another chin-up.”