Gary Roberts is due to be back in the lineup for the Pittsburgh Penguins when they close out the regular season tomorrow afternoon in Philadelphia. Roberts has been sidelined since late December with a broken leg, and high ankle sprain. On the eve of the "Second Coming" of Gary Roberts in Pittsburgh, I would like to take the time to look back at the illustrious career of one of the most passionate, dedicated, and feared players to ever play the game.
Gary Roberts was drafted by the Calgary Flames (12th overall) in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft. Roberts split time during the 86-87 season between the Flames and their AHL club in Moncton. The following season, Roberts became a staple in the Flames' lineup, playing in 74 games, collecting 28 points, and 282 penalty minutes. During the 1988-89 campaign, Roberts played 71 games with the Flames, recording 38 points and 250 penalty minutes, but showed his "true grit" in the playoffs. Roberts registered 12 points in 22 playoff games, including a 5-game point streak as he played an essential role in helping the Flames win the Stanley Cup.
The 1990-91 season would be the best of Roberts' career. He registered 90 points (53G, 37A) while ranking first in the NHL in shooting percentage. Roberts finished third in the points race that season, and became only the second player in the history of the league to score 50 goals and record 200 penalty minutes in one season.
Over the course of the next 4 seasons, Roberts would miss nearly 200 games due to injuries, before retiring from the league after the 1995-96 season due to a neck injury. Roberts had won the Bill Masterson Trophy during the 95-96 season, which is awarded to "the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey." Few people questioned whether Roberts would return, considering his production had faltered somewhat and his persistent injuries brought about questions of whether Roberts would ever play a full season again.
Gary Roberts silenced the critics by returning to the ice for the 1997-98 season, this time with the Carolina Hurricanes. Roberts played in 61 games, but missed 20 due to injury. Roberts recorded his 11th career hat trick and played in his 600th NHL game during this season.
Roberts would play two more full seasons with the Canes before signing with the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 2000-01 season. Roberts would go on to lead the Leafs in goals, plus/minus, and hits, while leading the NHL in shooting percentage. Roberts played in all 11 playoff games for the Leafs this season, registering 11 points, and leading the team in playoff assists. It seemed that Gary Roberts had found a new home in Toronto, and he quickly became a fan favorite.
On December 6, 2001, with a hat trick against the Canadiens, Roberts became only the sixth player in NHL history to score 350 goals and accumulate 2,000 penalty minutes. Roberts missed the final 10 games of the regular season due to injury, but returned for the playoffs and continued to dominate, registering 19 points in 19 games. Off-season shoulder surgery would cause Gary to miss the first 57 games of the following season.
The 2003-2004 campaign would prove to be one of the most memorable of Roberts previous sixteen. He would be voted to play in his third NHL All-Star Game, while playing in his 1,000 career game during this season. However, Gary would elect to sit out yet another full season in 2004-05 due to injuries and personal reasons.
Roberts returned to the ice again in 2005 with the Florida Panthers. In his only full season with the Panthers, Roberts served as the assistant captain, recorded his 400th career goal, and played in his 18th season in the league.
Then...it happened. February 27, 2007. Penguins GM announces that the Penguins have acquired LW Gary Roberts at the trade deadline, in exchange for D Noah Welch. Penguins fans who had watched Roberts play against their team earlier in the season, knew that he was a force to be reckoned with on the ice. A lot of uncertainty revolved around the trade, unsure if giving up a top young defensive prospect for a guy who is nearing the end of his career was a smart move by Shero. Oh, how we were wrong.
Roberts would play 19 games in the regular season for the Pens, recording 13 points, and playing some of the most motivated hockey that we had ever seen. Roberts' presence on the ice was something Pens' fans hadn't experienced since the Samuelsson brothers occupied the blue line in the early 90's.
Though the Penguins' early playoff exit was disappointing, Roberts was not. He registered 4 points in the 5-game series, and at times looked like a one man wrecking crew on the fore-check against the much bigger Ottawa team.
Roberts played in 37 games for the Pens this season, before suffering an injury in late December that has kept him out of the lineup, until tomorrow. If all goes according to plan, Gary Roberts will be back on the ice for the Penguins in their season finale against the Philadelphia Flyers.
Gary Roberts has become one of the most respected players in the National Hockey League. During his 19 NHL seasons, Roberts has registered 903 points (434G, 469A), 2,531 penalty minutes, and an 18.5% shooting percentage. Even more impressive are his playoff statistics: 89 points (30G, 59A), 300 PIM, in 119 games.
Gary Roberts has become a role model not only to his teammates, but to the fans as well. One popular catchphrase of the 1990's was WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?). These four simple letters challenged Christians to stop and think what Jesus would do in any certain situation or predicament that they might encounter. Pens fans took this catchphrase to a whole new level. What evolved was t-shirts, wristbands, posters, coffee mugs, and bumper stickers (see www.thepensblog.com), all displaying "WWGRD?" "What Would Gary Roberts Do" became somewhat of a secret code, setting Pens fans apart from fans of other teams across the league. I still have people come up to me when I'm sporting the WWGRD t-shirt and ask, "what is that supposed to mean?" "Are you making fun of Jesus?" "Why won't you tell me?" All I can do is smile, knowing that it's just a Penguins thing, they really wouldn't understand.
Besides the physical on-ice presence that Gary Roberts brings to a team, his work ethic off the ice is just as important. A team as young as the Pittsburgh Penguins are can never have too many role models in the locker room. Veteran leaders like Sergei Gonchar, Darryl Sydor, and Hal Gill help, but none match Gary Roberts. Roberts' dedication to conditioning and his strict vegetarian diet have helped him to keep up, or in some cases keep ahead, of guys that are barely half his age. Simply put, Gary Roberts has been nothing but a class act, on and off the ice since coming to Pittsburgh. He has epitomized the qualities of dedication, leadership, work ethic, and determination that the Steel City holds near and dear to its citizens' collective heart. Gary Roberts, who will turn 42 years old next month, is still a force to be reckoned with, and will be a key ingredient in the Penguins' upcoming post-season battle for Lord Stanleys' Cup.