Gary Roberts is a physical specimen if there ever was one. He is world-renowned for his intense training regiment, and has been highly sought after by athletes at all levels to better themselves – both in terms of lifestyle and performance.
A visit to Roberts’ Gary Roberts High Performance Training (HPT) website shows this message from him:
“My inspiration to start Gary Roberts HPT has grown out of my own journey to regenerate myself after I suffered a serious neck injury that forced me to retire from the NHL in 1996 after 10 seasons.”
“After two neck surgeries and with the assistance of many experts, I embarked on a program that combined specialized training, proper nutrition, rehabilitative therapies and recovery strategies. It was this integrated routine that enabled me to resume my career for another 12 years.”
Roberts played 21 seasons in the NHL. Long enough to have been teammates with Lanny McDonald and Steven Stamkos at various points of his career. Roberts won a Stanley Cup, scored well more than 400 goals and over 900 points. He scored at least 20 goals in 13 of those 21 seasons
But there was one season that was more consequential for Roberts than any other. One which saw him overcome what seemed destined to be a prematurely cut career. A degeneration of nerves in Roberts’ neck forced him to retire in June of 1996 and miss the entire 1996-97 season.
For most players, that would have remained the end of their professional hockey career. Roberts, however, took up an entirely new training regiment and a different physiotherapy approach. His commitment to getting better would lead to a season of rebirth.
A new team, a new outlook, a fresh start and a return to Roberts’ style of game. The 1997-98 NHL season as a Carolina Hurricane is a one for the ages campaign for this most physically fit veteran. THW takes a look back at Roberts’ first season back from retirement and it being the beginning of another 11 seasons of play.
10 Seasons in Calgary
In his four seasons of OHL junior hockey, Roberts generated 127 goals, 140 assists and 267 points in 207 games. He served as team captain of both the Ottawa 67s and Guelph Platters, and led both organizations to J. Ross Robertson Cup championships and Memorial Cup championships.
In the midst of his OHL career, the Calgary Flames drafted Roberts 12th overall in the 1984 Draft. A sizable forward at 6-foot-2 and over 200 pounds, a proven winner and a scoring prowess to boot? It was easy to see why Calgary would select him so highly.
Roberts would end up demonstrating that the Flames made the proper decision. He would make his NHL debut on Nov. 11, 1986 and scored a goal in that first regular season game. Facing the Vancouver Canucks at home, Roberts scored his team’s fifth goal in their 5-3 victory over Vancouver.
He would proceed to score another 256 goals for Calgary from 1986-87 through 1995-96.
Within that same time Roberts earned himself many other achievements in a Flames uniform. His first 20-goal season in 1988-89 would also see Calgary win their first (and thus far, only) Stanley Cup. Roberts played in all 22 playoff games as the Flames brought home the title.
Just three seasons later – 1991-92 – he would go on to be Calgary’s leading scorer when he generated 53 goals, 37 assists and 90 points in 76 games. Roberts would follow that up with seasons of 38 and 41 goals respectively.
Injuries Begin to Take Their Toll
Beginning with the 1992-93 season, Roberts would miss significant amounts of time due to injuries. Despite scoring a team-leading 41 goals in 1993-94, he likely could have had even more if he did not miss the final two weeks of the season due to the nerve damage in his neck.
Things only got worse in the lockout shortened 1994-95 campaign. Roberts played a mere eight games of the 48-game season as his injury continued to hamper him. He would end up needing to call it quits on the year in late February of 1995.
Roberts would undergo two different surgeries during the offseason to correct the matter, and his career was considered in doubt at times.
He would make a return to the Flames on Jan. 10, 1996, and would proceed to go 22-20-42 in scoring through 35 games in the 1995-96 season. Roberts’ determination and ability to continue on despite injury saw him be the recipient of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for perseverance and dedication at the end of the season.
Despite the two surgeries, Roberts could not obtain relief from the problems with his neck. Just 30 years old, he would retire from hockey in June of 1996.
From Calgary to Carolina
Well into his retirement, Roberts came across chiropractor Dr. Michael Leahy. It was Leahy’s pioneering technique of “active release” in physiotherapy that gave the former Flames player an almost immediate improvement in his mobility.
Having missed the entire 1996-97 NHL season, but with new hope and regained health, Roberts forged a comeback. Though still under contract with Calgary, the Flames proceeded to trade Roberts and goaltender Trevor Kidd to the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 25, 1997. The Flames in turn received center Andrew Cassels and goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
The move to the Eastern Conference was also done with the mindset that less traveling distance would be less of a strain on Roberts.
1997-98 was the Hurricanes first season of existence with that moniker. Prior to that time, the franchise played in Connecticut as the Hartford Whalers.
The make-up of these inaugural Hurricanes was primarily that of previous Whalers. There was very little change in the roster from just the season prior. They were also a seasoned bunch too, as well-established players such as Kevin Dineen, Robert Kron, Paul Ranheim, Stu Grimson and Steve Chiasson were all in their 30s.
For Roberts, he had previously been teammates in Calgary with Kidd, Ranheim, and Chiasson.
Roberts’ Comeback Is One for the Ages
That having been said, Roberts provided invaluable tutelage to a handful of Carolina’s young guns too. 20-goal scorers Sami Kapanen, Jeff O’Neill and Keith Primeau were all under the age of 25, and were the main forces behind the Hurricanes’ offense. A proven veteran like Roberts, whose determination was second to none, set a most positive example for how the younger players should carry themselves.
Roberts immediately picked up where he had left off, despite the full-season hiatus. He finished third on the ‘Canes in scoring, having gone 20-29-49 in only 61 games. The 20-goal performance was the eighth of his career.
The only players to outscore him on the roster were Kapanen (26-37-63) and Primeau (26-37-63), though both players suited up for 20 more games than Roberts did. Imagine if he had played the full 82-game schedule. It’s possible that Roberts would have at least led the team in goal scoring.
The most critical note to recognize though is that Roberts blew adversity out of the water. Not only did he come out of retirement, but did so after having been labored by injury that for anyone else would have been the end of their career, for good.
Here’s a look at some of Roberts’ more memorable games from the 1997-98 NHL season:
Oct. 7, 1997: In his fourth game back in the NHL, Roberts scored the first goal of his return. Hosting the Los Angeles Kings in Carolina, he scored the game-tying goal at 10:47 of the third period to even the score. Roberts’ goal beating Kings goalie Frederic Chabot was assisted by Nelson Emerson and Primeau. Knotted 3-3 after regulation and the overtime session, the first tally in his comeback secured his club a point.
Oct. 15, 1997: This date marked the first of 11 multi-point games that Roberts generated during the season. With the Buffalo Sabres visiting, Roberts’ two helpers got Carolina the 3-3 tie yet again. Primeau opened the game’s scoring with a shorthanded goal that Roberts set up only five minutes into the game. Buffalo would score three straight to go up 3-1, but Roberts and Dineen fed Kapanen on the power play at 2:46 of the third to narrow the gap. Another power play goal – this time from Geoff Sanderson – would make it 3-all for good.
Oct. 22, 1997: Playing host to the St. Louis Blues, Roberts’ put forth his first of four 3-point games. He scored the first goal of the game just over a minute in off of a feed from Kapanen. Helping to set up goals by Kevin Haller and Kapanen, Roberts was instrumental in getting his team the 4-3 victory. The goal by Kapanen at 0:38 of the third ended up being the game-winner.
Nov. 9, 1997: Though he would end up missing some time in between due to injury, this Nov. 9th contest against the Ottawa Senators was the first of six straight games in which Roberts recorded a point. In total, he would have 11 points (3-8-11) in that stretch. The streak started off with a pair of assists in a 4-1 victory over Ottawa. Early in the second period, Roberts set up Curtis Leschyshyn’s first of the season. He then earned the lone assist on Primeau’s second of the game with less than 30 seconds in regulation.
Nov. 12, 1997: On the road in Edmonton just three days later, Roberts would turn out another 3-point performance. The Hurricanes managed to score two goals in every period of the game in a 6-4 win over the Oilers. Roberts scored his team’s first goal at 17:53 of the opening period while on the power play. He then assisted on two goals from Kapanen – both coming less than four minutes into the second period.
Nov. 28, 1997: Roberts wouldn’t play again until this Nov. 28 affair, but it would be one that came in typical “Roberts fashion”. As Carolina shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-0, Roberts assisted on both of his team’s goals by Kapanen and picked up 12 minutes in penalties – a goaltender inference call against Corey Schwab and a 10-minute misconduct penalty late in the third.
Mar. 2, 1998: Roberts and the Hurricanes started off a West Coast trip with a 3-1 win over the San Jose Sharks. Despite being out-shot 44-17, Carolina’s Kidd played brilliantly in net while Roberts got the job done up front. He picked up a point on all three Carolina goals. First Roberts and Chiasson set up Kapanen’s 20th of the season just 22 seconds into the second period. Afterwards, Roberts would scored his 11th and 12th goals of the season to get the Hurricanes the W.
Apr. 9, 1998: Taking on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Roberts entered the game having scored 17 goals on the season. In what would be arguably his finest performance of 1997-98, he promptly scored his only hat-trick of the season. With Toronto using veteran goalie Glenn Healy in net, Roberts’ chemistry with Kapanen continued. Neither team scored in the opening period. However, the Hurricanes would get three straight goals from Ray Sheppard, Roberts, and Ranheim in the second. Kapanen picked up his 35th assist on the season from Roberts’ first goal.
While Lonny Bohonos would get the Maple Leafs on the board early in the third, Roberts would score two more goals – one an empty-netter with 25 seconds to go – to cap off the hat-trick and get his team a 5-2 win. Kapanen earned his 36th helper on Roberts’ second goal.
New Beginnings and 10 More Seasons
The Carolina Hurricanes finished 1997-97 with a record of 33-41-8. They were the only team in the Northeast Division to have a losing record, and were subsequently the only one to not make the playoffs either.
In some ways, that mattered not – at least not when it came down to Gary Roberts.
How could the season not be deemed a tremendous success for him? Roberts overcame what almost everyone would consider insurmountable circumstances – everyone except for him. In many ways, his perseverance defied logic. And he was very far away from being “one and done”.
After his comeback season, Roberts played another 10 more seasons. He scored another 181 regular season goals too. Roberts also played another 639 regular season games to finish his career with 1,224 in total.
Some would even say that the finest part of Roberts’ career never took shape until he came to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2000-01 at the age of 34. He would proceed to string together three more 20-goal seasons in a Maple Leafs uniform, including leading the team in goals (29) in his first season with the club.
Before Roberts finally retired for good after the 2008-09 season, he imparted some of his knowledge and experience into a number of today’s stars. He would play a season and a half for the Florida Panthers, before finishing out his career with stops in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Across both final stops, he would be teammates with many current stars in the likes of Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Players like that would not have had their careers enriched if it were not for Roberts’ comeback. It was his first go-round with the Hurricanes that was necessary in proving that his body was healthy enough to play, and that he could contribute at a very high level on into his 40s.
Retiring with 438 goals, 471 assists and 909 points to go along with his Stanley Cup ring, it is Gary Roberts’ return season in 1997-98 that we recognize as being one for the ages.
General Manager of the Buffalo Beauts (NWHL). Hockey history writer “The Hockey Writers”. Credentialed media for the NHL Combine and 2018 IIHF World Junior Championships in Buffalo, NY, USA. Born and raised in Buffalo, NY. Lifelong hockey fan for over 40 years. Proponent of the women’s game.