Ten years ago Doug Roberts was a high school student in Detroit, and on Thursday and Sunday nights during the winter he rode the bus out Grand River Avenue to Olympia Stadium to be a stick boy for the Detroit Red Wings. Today Roberts is a Red Wing, and he rides in from suburban Birmingham with Gordie Howe. He rides with that hockey demigod because he skates on Howe's line—which is one of the more preposterous facts of the season. As everyone knows, Americans are incapable of playing pro hockey, a game that is Canadian property.
In the 51-year history of the National Hockey League, only a handful of American players have ever lasted for any length of time, and this year Roberts and Boston's Tommy Williams, who was born in Duluth, are outnumbered by Canadians 214 to 2. Roberts has given the odds considerable thought.
"It's a combination of things," he says. "First, there's the difference in the rules: forechecking isn't allowed in American colleges and in the Olympics. But for me a tougher problem was simply skating."
Roberts meant skating with a stick and a rubber disk, not carving the ice Dick Button style. Of the scattering of Americans in minor league hockey, none could stickhandle well enough to claim any new jobs created last year by the NHL's expansion. Frank Brimsek, Jack McCartan, Carl Wetzel and Johnny Mariucci are all U.S. citizens who played big-league hockey, but, significantly, all but Mariucci were goalies who did their skating in the 4-by-8-foot crease.
Williams of Boston was an unusually good skater for an American—but at first he suffered the other native failing, that of skating with his head down. It was Williams who helped set up the winning goal in America's dramatic 3-2 victory over the Russians in Squaw Valley in 1960. But until this year—his best ever—Williams was slowed by injuries. "I really don't think I would have been hurt as much if I had grown up playing under Canadian rules," Tommy says.
In Canada the first piece of advice given a youngster stepping on a hockey rink is: "Never skate with your head down. If you do, somebody is liable to take it off." Canadian and pro rules allow checking all over the ice, and some American players never fully recover from their first rough year of Canadian clobbering.
"You learn to bring up the wood when somebody is bearing down on you," says Roberts. "In the NHL you've got to get that stick up fast to absorb some of the shock."
Roberts himself was not always a heads-up type. "In my very first NHL game," he says, "we were playing the Rangers in Detroit and, naturally, I was pretty nervous. I was awed. Alex [Delvecchio] passed the puck to me, and I remember looking down and thinking, 'Gee, Delvecchio just passed this puck to me? Then, all of a sudden, the lights went out. I thought I had been hit by the team bus. It turned out to be Jim Neilson."
The Red Wings signed Roberts, an All-State high school halfback who later played both football and hockey at Michigan State, for his size (6'2", 215 pounds), strength and shot. There was, however, considerable doubt whether he could keep up with pro competition, so Coach Sid Abel sent him to Memphis in the minors for his first year.
Roberts scored 20 goals and 40 assists for Memphis in 1965-66, was named Rookie of the Year, and led Memphis into the playoffs—although those he missed because Detroit called him up as a standby for the Red Wings' own Stanley Cup playoffs.