Gary Roberts retired from the NHL on Tuesday after a career lasting more than 21 years, twice as long as many expected.
Roberts career ended in the city where it started, as he recorded an assist in Tampa Bay's 8-6 win at the Saddledome on March 1.
"For me, it's a little emotional," he said. "Calgary's got a special place in my heart. Obviously winning a Stanley Cup there was my best hockey memory … so very fitting and thankful, if it was going to end that way, that it ended where I won a Stanley Cup."
Roberts, 42, was not claimed by another club after being put on waivers ahead of the trade deadline by Tampa Bay.
Roberts signed a one-year deal with Tampa last summer for $1.25 million US. He scored four goals and three assists in 30 games but for the second straight season was unable to stay healthy.
While the lowly Lightning have been criticized for the way they handled the situation, Roberts said he understood the team needed to get a look at its young players. He said he was more surprised that he didn't get claimed by another club.
"I truly believed I was going to get picked up," said Roberts. "I really thought I'd played well enough and I was healthy, that I'd get one more crack at it."
Roberts has scored 438 goals and 471 assists in 1,224 games in his NHL career, nearly half of his goals coming after a first retirement in the mid-1990s due to a serious neck injury.
"I always said at the time when I came back, I'd take it a year at a time and every year was a bonus year for me," he said. "I never fathomed I'd last this long."
The Toronto native ranks 60th all-time in goals and 88th in points. He didn't change his hard-nosed style even after the health scare, finishing with 2,560 penalty minutes, 18th in league history.
As recently as Feb. 22, he dropped the gloves in a competitive fight with Boston's Mark Stuart, a player 18 years his junior.
Cup win came in his second season
He won a Cup with the Flames in just his second full season, 1988-89.
"I remember standing on the blue-line after we won the Cup in Montreal and standing beside my buddy Joe Nieuwendyk and saying, 'Well, that was easy, how many more of those are we gonna win?'
"So we're sitting here today and it's about 20 years later and I'm retiring and I've only won one. It just goes to show you how much you should appreciate and respect your opportunity when you get there."
His best season statistically came in 1991-92, when he scored 53 goals and added 37 assists for the Calgary Flames.
Roberts played just eight games in 1994-95. He encountered nerve damage in his neck due to bulging discs, which affected the use of his arms.
After undergoing two lengthy surgeries, he came back with 42 points in 35 games the following season and was recognized as the Bill Masterton Trophy winner for dedication and perseverance.
But problems lingered with his neck and he retired at season's end, at 30 years old.
"The nerves needed time to regenerate and heal, and no one could tell me how long that time would be," he said.
Returned to NHL in 1997-98
Roberts came back to the NHL in 1997-98 for the first of three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes. His dedication to a new level of fitness would become well-known around the league.
He went on to two productive seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, even playing all 82 games in the first season.
Roberts became emotional on Tuesday speaking about wearing the No. 7 of his former teammate and mentor Lanny McDonald, who wore the number for the Maple Leafs in the 1970s.
In the second season in Toronto, Roberts helped the club reach the conference final, finishing with 19 points in as many playoff games.
While he called the near-miss in 2002 a disappointment, he remembered it as a special time.
"I think about the players and how close we were," Roberts said. "When you're winning, or you're very competitive, there's no better city to play hockey in."
The left wing again had trouble staying healthy, however, with shoulder, foot and groin injuries limiting him to 21 games in his third and final season in Toronto.
Another Stanley Cup final
He spent nearly two years with the Florida Panthers before a trade last season to Pittsburgh, where he reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time since winning with the Flames in 1989.
Roberts provided leadership for a club that included young stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal.
"They had an influence on me," Roberts told CBCSports.ca. "To see the way they prepared as young players, to see how committed they were … it really kept me hungry and excited as an older player."
"It was very satisfying [getting to the final], it was something I'll cherish," he continued. "I was only in Pittsburgh a year and a half, but it really felt like I was there a lot longer than that."
Roberts said he would be involved in the game at some point in the future but that for now he wants to spend time with his family, which includes two children and a third on the way in May.
Gary Roberts's statistics:
|Games||Goals||Assists||Points||Points per game|