The burning pain in his neck is long gone, as are the muscle spasms that once rippled down his back. The season's everyday dents are mending as well: A torn rib-cage muscle has healed, the bloodied knuckles have scabbed over, and the shiner that recently ringed his left eye has faded to a purple whisper. At this moment, lounging in an armchair in the lobby of a Cary, N.C., hotel last Saturday morning, 36-year-old left wing Gary Roberts of the Toronto Maple Leafs is relatively healthy—an important distinction for someone whose NHL days were nearly cut short by injury not that long ago. "I was 30, in the prime of my career, and I had it taken from me," Roberts says of his 18-month retirement, which began in June 1996, because a series of collisions caused nerve and disk damage in his neck. "Now, every year I play is a bonus. My career can end at any time, and I know that, so I try to enjoy every day. I've been given a second chance."
With injured teammates falling all around him (10 regulars have been out of the lineup for at least one game since the middle of the second round), Roberts has become the leader of Toronto's march through these Demolition Derby playoffs. After Sunday's 2-1 loss in overtime to the Carolina Hurricanes, in which Roberts set up Toronto's goal and played with gusto, the Eastern Conference finals were tied at one game apiece. Though he was sixth on his team in scoring during the regular season, Roberts was tied for the NHL playoff scoring lead through Sunday, with seven goals and 12 assists. His timing has been equally impressive. In the conference semifinals against the Ottawa Senators he ended Game 2 in the third overtime by snaking a wrister from the slot between goalie Patrick Lalime's pads to even the series. He also scored game-tying goals in Game 6 against the Senators and Game 7 of the conference quarterfinals against the New York Islanders. "Gary has one gear, and it's go," says Toronto coach Pat Quinn. "He plays with a lack of respect for his body."
For a while that was a problem. The No. 1 draft pick of the Calgary Flames in 1984, Roberts won the Stanley Cup in '89 and was a two-time All-Star before the neck ailment caused him to miss a total of 87 matches during the '94-95 and '95-96 seasons and then announce his retirement. Two surgeries left him with a mass of scar tissue around the disks in his neck and with atrophied muscles and limited mobility in his neck and upper body. Although he could perform everyday tasks, Roberts was unable to exercise rigorously, and by November '96 he was disgusted with his deteriorating physical condition. "After six months of doing nothing but getting fat," he says, "I looked at myself in the mirror and said, 'I refuse to live my life like this. I refuse to get out of shape after being a pro athlete.' It wasn't about coming back to play hockey, it was about getting healthy for life."
Roberts's chiropractor, Michael Leahy, referred him to Charles Poliquin, a Calgary-based strength coach, who started Roberts on a nutritional and conditioning regimen that radically reshaped his body. From November 1996 through September '97, Roberts trained daily with Poliquin, even relocating him to Phoenix so the pair could live in adjacent condos and train away from the media attention his workouts were generating in Calgary. Poliquin began by overhauling Roberts's diet. Gone were the beer and chicken-wing dinners that Roberts usually ate on the road. In their place were meals composed largely of protein—fish, eggs, green vegetables—and posttraining supplement shakes, a menu Roberts still follows.
As Roberts began to feel better, he noticed that his neck had improved, and he started to entertain notions of getting back on the ice. Poliquin revised Roberts's training program to stress "functional strength," meaning Roberts would train for hockey-specific situations. By substituting track sprints and hill runs for the three-and five-mile jogs that Roberts had favored, Poliquin improved Roberts's speed over the short distances needed on the ice. A switch in weightlifting drills from exercises like curls to squats and snatches allowed Roberts to beef up his legs and upper body, adding power that would be needed along the boards and in the corners.
Roberts's strengthening of his body not only allowed him to make a comeback, which he did successfully with the Hurricanes in 1997-98 (he was traded to Carolina in August '97), but also let him regain the ruthless power-forward style that in '91-92 made him the second player in league history (after Kevin Stevens) to score at least 50 goals and get 200 or more penalty minutes in the same season. Subtle as a sledgehammer and equally as potent, Roberts constantly crashes his 6'1", 190-pound body into defenders and dive-bombs the offensive zone in pursuit of loose pucks.
"The thing to remember when you're trying to defend Gary is that he never takes the long route to anywhere, and when he gets the puck, he's taking the shortest route possible to the net," says Carolina coach Paul Maurice, for whom Roberts played for three seasons before signing as a free agent with the Leafs in July 2000. "You've got to get between him and the net, and that's not fun."
Roberts is at his best around the crease because he's big enough to screen the goal-tender and strong enough to keep defenders from pushing him away. "He's one of the toughest guys to knock out of there or to even move his stick," says Alyn McCauley, who centers Roberts and right wing Jonas Hoglund. "I take the puck wide on a two-on-one, and I look for Gary to go to the net."
"Gary started playing hockey when he was five, and he was big for his age," his father, Herb, a retired steelworker who raised Gary in Whitby, Ont., says with a laugh. "That's why his game is the way it is—he's always been aggressive." That aggressiveness surfaced in Game 5 of the series against the Islanders when Roberts leveled New York defenseman Kenny Jonsson from behind, sending Jonsson crashing into the boards and causing him to sustain a concussion. ( Roberts was assessed a charging major but was not suspended. He said that he was simply finishing his check.) Two games later Roberts plowed into Islanders goalie Chris Osgood on a rush, kneeing Osgood in the midsection. "When you play that intense, stuff like that happens," says Leafs defenseman Nathan Dempsey. "Gary never intends to hurt anybody."
As the injuries pile up in Toronto, the Maple Leafs must overcome history to win their first Stanley Cup since 1967. No team has taken the chalice after playing seven-game series in the first two rounds, as the Leafs have. Toronto, though, has the benefit of Roberts's remarkable wrecking-ball act and the inspiration of the hardest-working man in hockey. "He leads by example," Leafs winger Tie Domi says of Roberts. "He plays every shift like it's his last."