Gary Roberts played for the Carolina Hurricanes for exactly three seasons, but he made a mark on the franchise in that short time. His stats include 207 games played, 57 goals, 87 assists and 343 penalty minutes. More significant than the stats, Gary Roberts brought an intensity and fire that matched any player I have ever seen where a Carolina Hurricanes sweater (yes, including Rod Brind’Amour). His icy steel glare, physical play and a fiery persona aimed to and often successfully did intimidate opponents. Throw in his propensity to occasionally just explode, and he easily fit into the category of rugged warrior from an era of hockey different from today. And while he was scared of exactly no one, players around the league did watch their Ps and Qs around him for fear of repercussions. Only old school enforcer Stu Grimson topped Gary Roberts’ 178 penalty minutes in 1998-99 for the Canes single season record.
Gary Roberts also brings two interesting side notes to Canes history. The first is that he actually played for the Hurricanes AFTER he retired. He missed almost the entire 1994-95 season and half of the 1995-96 with a career threatening neck injury. He courageously returned to the Calgary Flames for the second half of the 1995-96 season and finished the season strong but also realized that it just was not going to work. He then retired from the NHL in the summer of 1996. After finding a new doctor and missing a full season while rehabilitating his injury, he announced a return to the NHL for 1997-98 and was traded to the Hurricanes partly due to the reduced travel stress of the Eastern Conference.
The other interesting side note is his contribution to Hurricanes history while playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs as an opponent in the Eastern Conference Finals. He had a phenomenal 2002 playoffs (finished with 19 points in 19 games) playing left wing on Toronto’s top line that carried the Leafs to the Eastern Conference Finals. In those Eastern Conference Finals against Carolina, Canes coach Paul Maurice generally matched Roberts’ line with his best checking line of Brind’Amour/Battaglia/Cole. The matchup saw a rookie Erik Cole staring eye-to-eye nearly every faceoff with a player dubbed ‘scary Gary.’ To this day, the battle between those lines and the Roberts versus Cole matchup is my favorite memory of Erik Cole’s career. I remember the two of them going at it in a physical battle of will between two warriors. I also remember many of those shifts ending with Roberts in Cole’s face trying to intimidate the rookie or possibly goad him into what would have been a dumb fight. Cole matched Roberts shift for shift, check for check and battle for battle inside the whistles and found the right balance of courage and smarts standing up to Roberts without getting suckered into a bad decision to drop the gloves or take a bad penalty after the whistle.
Stories, stats and on-ice production aside, Roberts’ greatest contribution as a Cane might have come off the ice. While he seemed to be the equivalent of a ticking time bomb inside of the game, he was very much the positive locker room presence off the ice. He forced accountability. As a fitness freak, he set an example for what was required in terms of conditioning, preparation and effort. And he was a leader and mentor. His successful mentoring of a young Jeff O’Neill was vital to O’Neill’s maturation to become one of the team’s best players. O’Neill’s emergence as a top line scorer was a vital component of the Canes’ playoff success long after Roberts was gone.