- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 28, 2002

A few years ago the Washington Capitals were trying to add character players up front, especially on the left side. One player under serious consideration was Gary Roberts of Calgary but it was decided his health was such a risk that it wasn't worth the gamble.
Roberts has the last laugh. Four years after being forced into early and, as it turned out, temporary retirement by neck and spine injuries, Roberts is playing and starring for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference finals against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Not only is he Toronto's leading scorer (7 goals, 19 points), he leads the league in playoff penalty minutes with 56 despite missing the Maple Leafs' playoff opener with a torn rib muscle.
But this is a tough playoff series for the left wing, who just turned 36. When few others in the league wanted to take a chance on a man with neck and spine injuries, the Hurricanes went out and traded for him and he played in North Carolina for three seasons, adding character and experience to a young roster, teaching it what price was necessary to pay in order to win.
"He was very good for us the years he was here," said Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford, whose close relationship with Roberts is being tested by the wing's play against his club. "We tried to add character guys; Gary Roberts was one of them."
How did he end up playing for his hometown Leafs? "It wasn't financial," said Rutherford, "he made a personal decision."
The decision Roberts made, he acknowledges, was to play for a team he thought had a better shot at winning a Stanley Cup than he figured the always rebuilding Hurricanes did. Now he is fighting tooth and nail against a group of guys he became very close to.
That is probably one of the reasons Roberts has gone on a crusade against Eric Cole, a budding Carolina star but still a rookie. Roberts can go against him with a clear mind Cole is new to the roster. Roberts didn't know him when he was a Hurricane.
And go after him Roberts has. It seems every time Cole is on the ice, Roberts also appears. It is therefore significant that Cole, who was one of the 'Canes' top offensive producers in Carolina's first two playoff series he scored half of the team's first 12 goals has gone without a goal against Toronto. The same holds true for Cole's linemates, Bates Battaglia and Rod Brind'Amour.
As much as all that matters, Roberts has started to take some very undisciplined penalties which have left his club shorthanded at bad times. This matters even more in a series where there have been only 13 goals, eight coming on the power play. Any penalty obviously could be the deciding factor and the Leafs, trailing 3-2 heading into tonight's game, are only one mistake away from vacation.
Roberts' best friend when he was a Hurricane was right wing Jeff O'Neill, whom he took under his arm and taught the rookie how to turn potential into NHL success. Now O'Neill has to put friendship aside although he understands, as do all hockey players, what is going on and what is at stake.
"He's a guy who plays on the edge," O'Neill said. "He's aggressive and plays hard and sometimes your emotions can get the best of you. Gary has always been characterized as a fair player who competes hard. He goes about his business the right way."
But O'Neill has been taken somewhat aback by Roberts during the current series. O'Neill was hit in the right eye by a puck during Game 2, leaving a perfectly round black eye and a very nasty gash. Roberts seemingly tried to punch his pal in the eye, probably one of the lessons he tried to teach the Hurricane when they roomed together that all was fair in the playoffs.
Roberts always has seemed to be a player one hit away from retirement because of his manner of play. He has all the finesse of a loaded, out-of-control dump truck. He won a Stanley Cup with Calgary in 1989 and a Memorial Cup (junior hockey's top prize) with Ottawa in 1985.
He sustained neck and spinal injuries in February 1996, and missed the better part of the next three seasons, actually retiring at one point. Extensive rehabiliation and a diet that included protein milkshakes gave him new hope and he resurfaced with Carolina for the 1997-98 season.
He has been more than just an aggravating pest for the Leafs. Toronto has gone through an unbelievable amount of injuries since the start of the second half of the season, including playing most of the first two rounds without captain Mats Sundin. Roberts has stepped in and picked up the slack.
"I don't want to run off at the mouth with superlatives," said ailing Toronto coach Pat Quinn, also a lawyer, "but Roberts has been superlative."


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