Passion, preparation fuel Roberts
Evan Grossman for NHL.com
At a time when an unprecedented number of young players -- in many cases, teenagers -- are taking the NHL by storm, a couple of grizzled graybeards are proving it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks after all.
When Florida hosted San Jose Tuesday night, there were plenty of kids in uniform, from 22-year old Sharks rookie Matt Carle, to Florida's 21-year-old scorer, Nathan Horton. Don't forget 19-year old Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who is averaging 19:53 a night on the San Jose blue line, and Florida's Jay Bouwmeester, the Panthers' 23-year-old workhorse.
The kids are all the rage these days.
But at the other end of the age spectrum, there also is life.
At present, there are only six players in the league 40 years or older, and half of them are playing in Florida. Ed Belfour is still getting it done at 41, while 40-year-olds Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk continue to get regular shifts and remain vital cogs for a Panthers team that figures to be in the thick of it in the Eastern Conference this season.
"It's good to have them around," Bouwmeester said of his veteran teammates. "They're really good guys."
The other NHL senior citizens are Red Wings granddaddy of defense Chris Chelios, 44, goalie Dominik Hasek, 41, and Scott Mellanby, 40, fourth in scoring for the first-place Atlanta Thrashers.
The majority of the old fogies in the league are in Florida, the unofficial world capital of retirement communities and early bird specials. Still going strong in a young man's game, Roberts may not get around the rink like he used to. But he remains one of the toughest guys in the league, one of the strongest forwards in the world and a nightmare to defend one-on-one, as Roberts proves that age is just a number.
What's his secret?
"I'm not sure," Roberts told NHL.com. "Passion for the game and for working out. I know that if I didn't work out and take care of myself like I do, then I wouldn't be playing. Believe me, I still have a lot of tough days where I wake up and say to myself, 'Oh boy, I don't know if I can get it going today.' So I'm definitely getting to a point in my career where it's getting tougher, for sure. But I'm still enjoying it, still enjoy the competition and hanging around the rink, enjoying that lifestyle.
"It's the best," Roberts said. "It's a great life, it's a great lifestyle, and I'm very grateful that I've been given this opportunity to come back and play. I'm just enjoying every day and trying to prolong it as much as I can."
Roberts found the best way to prolong his career is by staying in tip-top shape and watching what he eats. It's easy for NHL players to pig out with food at just about every turn: at the rink, in the hotel, on the plane and with all that meal money burning a hole in their pockets on road trips. It's everywhere, but the Panthers know the best place to find nosh is in Roberts' carry-on.
"I always have organic trail mix or some canned wild salmon or wild tuna. I have that in my bag with all my vitamins and amino acids," says Roberts, who is still cut like a diamond. "When I leave the house, guys laugh at me, anybody wants a snack they come to me on the plane. I usually got it in my bag. I take extra time, for sure, preparing for that, but I know it helps me so I don't mind doing it."
Roberts broke in with the 1986-87 Flames and, even at a time when the accepted hockey diet consisted of pizza and beer, he learned the finer points of fitness from guys like coach Bob "Badger" Johnson and veteran Calgary teammates like Tim Hunter and Lanny McDonald.
"Those guys were all fitness freaks and really in good shape and took really good care of themselves," Roberts said. "And that was back then. So I came in and realized I had a long way to go before I'm an NHLer. And as my career went on, I took some back hits and had two surgeries on my neck when I was 30 years old. I knew that if I wanted to come back and play, I really had to change my lifestyle. That's when I started taking the training and the nutrition seriously."
Roberts missed the 1996-97 season after undergoing two eight-hour surgeries to repair nerve and disc damage in his neck, the result of playing a rough and tumble power game. He didn't think he'd ever play again, but 10 years later, Roberts is still kicking around.
"Earlier in my career, diets weren't very good," Roberts said. "But it's all about recovery. It's recovery after games, especially at an older age, you're trying do everything you can to get the edge and to be ready for the next game. I don't play on guilt very often anymore, where you'll go out and have a few beers and chicken wings. Those days are over. For me, it's all about nutrition. I know that if I don't take care of myself off the ice, it's going to be over pretty quick. That's a huge part of your recovery is your nutrition. I've learned to make sure that I have proper snacks packed in my bag, in case the food's no good."
So when the food is fattening or just isn't good, the Panthers line up by Roberts' seat, in search of a snack. They may get a bag of organic trail mix, but they also might get some advice from him too.
"If guys ask me – I don't preach it – if someone comes to me and wants some help as far as nutrition goes, I'm more than happy to offer it to them," Roberts said. "Making the smart choices for nutrition is a huge part of recovery. If you learn that at a young age, you have a way better chance of prolonging your career."