Happy Thanksgiving! About a month ago we had the chance to sit down and catch up with former Penguin forward, Gary Roberts. Here is that interview.
Andy Hughes: Gary, how are you doing today.
Gary Roberts: I’m good, guys. How are you doing today?
Andy Hughes: We are wonderful… Before we get to the hockey-related questions, we just wanted to catch up with you a little bit. How is life after playing hockey? We know you opened up the Fitness Institute, and it seems to be going pretty well for you.
Gary Roberts: Yeah, you know what? It’s been a nice transition. I always say nothing will replace playing hockey for me. I miss it every day. But this is a nice second. I get to pass on the information I’ve obtained over the course of my career and ways to hopefully help some young players avoid some of the challenges I did have.
Nick Richter: It seems like a natural transition for you after your playing career. When did you get into the fitness and nutrition aspect of it (your game)?
Gary Roberts: Well for sure at age 30, when I lost my career to injury. I realized at that time in my life, in order to just get healthy, I was going to have to make some changes to my lifestyle. Nutrition and training were obviously the two things that I changed the most that gave me a second opportunity that I was so grateful for to come back and play for all those years when, you know, I was basically written off at 30-years-old that I wouldn’t play again. I know the training and nutrition, the research I did and the steps I took in changing the way that I lived were really what gave me that second opportunity.
Joe Depto: Gary, the types of changes you’re talking about, it seems like you passed it on to some other current NHL players and some of the guys you’ve worked with have had some outstanding success on and off the ice after working with you. Is there something specific about your training that is totally unique from everywhere else? Is there something they get from you that they just can’t get from anywhere else?
Gary Roberts: I think that the experience of playing for as long as I did is something I can offer that a lot of strength coaches can’t offer. But I think the everyday consistent attention to maintenance. I believe that, you know, players train in May and June and July and August and all of a sudden they think that “OK, I’m just going to be a hockey player for the next eight months” and they forget about their nutrition and they forget about their body maintenance. When I talk about treatment and stretching and some maintenance strength training. It’s a 12-month of a year job now. It’s not like you go into training camp, you get in shape and you take your summers off and you eat chicken wings and you drink beer. We did that in the 80’s and it didn’t work for me! That’s why I retired at 30 was because of that lifestyle. I’m not saying you can’t have a cheat day, but if you want to be a professional athlete, and you want to have a chance at longevity, and you want to be an elite player for a period of time, you have to live differently than we maybe used to in the 80’s
Nick Richter: Gary, you were so loved here in Pittsburgh for the short amount of time you were here. Talk about your time here in the Steel City.
Gary Roberts: Well for sure, I look at my career and I look at the places I played, and you know, Pittsburgh, for me, I felt like I was there forever. I think I was there for a year-and-a-half, but for me, I so enjoyed playing in Pittsburgh. Every time I get an opportunity to come back to Pittsburgh for an event. The Mario Lemieux Fantasy Camp, being the one I came back for, if I get a chance to come in and watch some games. I love Pittsburgh. I love the people in Pittsburgh and the way that I was treated there, for me, was a memory that I’ll always cherish, by the organization and my teammates. I just thought it to be a great, great hockey town, a sports town in general, and I can’t say enough about my time there.
I had the opportunity to play with some great young players that were just finding their own in the National Hockey League too, and you know, I came there with the expectations of being this leader and I got there and, it’s always tough to jump into a situation around March when you get traded and you’re trying to find your way and you’re trying to just sit back and listen and what I saw when I first got to Pittsburgh, I remember saying to Ray Shero, “This is the best group of young players that I’ve been around for a long time” and I knew that they were going to win the Stanley Cup in the next few years. I just could feel that they had that closeness. I remember trying to kick the guys off the ice cause we were late for every bus ride and every plane ride because we couldn’t get our young players off the ice. That was the way it used to be for me. In Calgary when I was a young player and we never left the rink. We were always on the ice doing extra stuff or fooling around or in the dressing room playing ping-pong. We had such a close team in Calgary and I believe that’s why we won the Stanley Cup in 1989. When I looked at that Pittsburgh team that eventually won the Stanley Cup, it’s no secret why they won. It’s because of how much time they spent together at the rink, working on their games, going for lunch after, just being together. I think they had that closeness that we had in Calgary in 1989.
Nick Richter: It kind of rejuvenates your career just a little bit, doesn’t it?
Gary Roberts: Absolutely. I felt like a kid again, being around those young players, for me. I think about Jordan Staal, Sidney Crosby and Brooks Orpik. You know at the time Colby Armstrong was there and a great young player in the dressing room and obviously they had a veteran in Mark Recchi who helped me a great deal when I first got there and was such a great leader for that team. I just felt like we had such a good mix of guys when I first got to Pittsburgh I could just go to the rink. Honestly, I would tell my wife, the first two weeks in Pittsburgh, in both how she was treated too, I would come home from the rink saying these might be the nicest people I’ve ever met in Pittsburgh. They’d help her at the rink with my little guy, Noah, getting them seated at the rink. Just the whole experience of Mellon Arena and the whole organization for us was first class all the way.
Andy Hughes: Fast-forwarding to the current NHL. Fans are really missing any NHL hockey. Obviously the lockout is going on, a lot of frustration among fans. You were a part of a few lockouts in your career. What do you make of this whole situation?
Gary Roberts: Well, I understand it. It really is a tough situation. I’m sure there are many different views on both sides. I think back to my days in Calgary there. We had the strike, we had the lockout and then we had a big lockout for a whole season that we lost when I was a Leaf. They’re just not good experiences for the players. They players work so hard today to be ready to play in September, to sit back and do all that work and not have an avenue to show your progression is frustrating for these young players. I tell all my young guys now that I work with, “guys, you gotta stay close, you don’t have to work your butt off every day. But when you work you work and when you rest you rest” and try to keep them as fresh as we can right now.
On both sides, no one wants there not to be NHL hockey. My opinion, the last few years of my career and we played the game that’s played today, I loved the game. I loved the way the game is played. I love the skill and the speed of the game today. For me there’s not much wrong with the game other than the fact we’re not getting an opportunity to watch it right now and it’s sad for everybody.
Joe Depto: Gary, a big issue going on with the NHL in addition to the lockout, the situation with players contracts and everything, is also player safety. There’s been a lot of talk about changing the equipment, to the helmet to changing rules and changing different things about the game overall, with the lockout and hot-button issues like that going on, where do you see the face of professional hockey in five years from now or even ten years from now?
Gary Roberts: I do believe for me it’s one thing. I think with the ability for players to fly around at high speeds, the conditioning of players today, the speed of the game, I just believe there are more high-speed collisions and there’s no doubt that the one rule that I would let back in the game to try and slow down the game a little bit is a little bit of interference. Maybe not with your hockey stick, but with body positioning. There’s just some incidents out there that normally wouldn’t happen if you could just step in front of a guy and impede his progress a little bit. I think they need to get that part of the game back to try and improve player safety so you’re not seeing as many collisions at high speeds.
We all know that the ice isn’t any bigger but the players are bigger, stronger, faster; there’s no doubt about it. Equipment whether they can improve the safety of the helmet and take away some of the padding and some of the elbow pads and shoulder pads, there’s obviously some room there to be gained, but overall, I believe that players need to be aware, alert and do their best to avoid those opportunities for headshots.
You look at Sid’s (Crosby’s) history and I can look at the hits that he took, and it’s amazing to me that he had the issues that he did. I’m not sitting here today critical of any of that stuff. I never was diagnosed with a concussion. I have no idea what a concussion feels like, so for me it’s just a little weird that we’re having so many concussions reported today compared to when I was playing years ago. I don’t recall ever seeing the amount of concussions reported. Maybe they’re over reported today. I don’t know what the answer is, other than players need to take it upon themselves to be in shape, be alert and not put themselves into vulnerable positions when they can help it.
Thanks to Gary for taking the time to speak to us.