Onetime NHL power forward Gary Roberts had a choice to make back in 1996 when a serious neck injury threatened to force him into early retirement at age 30.
The longtime, rugged Calgary Flames winger, contemplating a return to play, realized the golf games he’d been enjoying would soon be a permanent fixture in his life unless he got more serious about nutrition and overall fitness. That he did, parlaying an overhauled lifestyle into a dozen more NHL seasons, then an off-ice career as a Toronto-based high performance coach for several NHL, minor professional and amateur stars.
Roberts now brings his expertise to Seattle as a Kraken sports science and performance consultant, one of the more intriguing of seven new hockey operations hires announced Wednesday by the coming expansion franchise.
“For me, the biggest challenge of my life — my work life, that’s for sure — was dealing with what I went through with two neck surgeries and then trying to make that comeback,” Roberts said. “I was away from the game for almost 18 months. But through that, I really grew an appreciation for health, wellness and high-performance training. All of those factors were areas of my life that I needed to clean up in order to have an opportunity to play again.”
The Kraken hopes to gain an advantage for what will be a team of varying-level talent, assembled largely with castoffs from other squads. Roberts, 54, who spent his early comeback seasons in Carolina playing alongside current Kraken general manager Ron Francis, had recently made as big a name for himself off the ice as he did on, compiling 438 goals, 471 assists and a 1989 Stanley Cup win with Calgary over 1,224 career games with six teams.
He’s among Kraken additions that include new head trainer Michael Booi, who spent the past few seasons as an assistant trainer with the Washington Capitals — winning a Cup there in 2018 — and with the Arizona Coyotes prior. Jeff Camelio is the team’s new equipment manager, coming over from an assistant’s role in Nashville.
Nate Brookreson, who will work closely with Roberts, is the strength and conditioning coach after serving as an assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning for Olympic sports at North Carolina State University. Tim Ohashi is the new head video analyst, reprising a role he held most recently with the Capitals.
The Kraken also made two more analytics hires, bringing Eric Mathiasen on as a hockey operations developer and John Mavroudis as a hockey operations data engineer. Mathiasen had been a senior technical designer at Microsoft, Mavroudis a technical program manager of data engineering at Hellosign, a Dropbox company.
Francis welcomed the additions as core components of the hockey operations side as planning begins toward training camp next fall at a new Northgate Mall facility. And helping design parts of that facility — and the team’s future American Hockey League arena near Palm Springs, California — will be Roberts, a teammate Francis never forgot due to his fitness regimen.
“After his neck injury, I think a lot of people told him he was done and he found a way to rehab it and train it and come back,’’ Francis said. “He was really careful with his diet and his prep and other stuff. … I appreciate all the stuff he provides for a lot of the young hockey players that want to get to the league. And also guys in the AHL and the NHL that want to train with him in the summertime.’’
Individual clients of Gary Roberts High Performance Training include Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid and teammate James Neal, Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos and Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele. Roberts is on a three-year, exclusive deal with the Kraken as his only team client, but he’ll be allowed to continue offseason work with opposing players.
Francis said player fitness today is vastly better than when he and Roberts played, largely due to higher salaries up for grabs.
“I think you saw a great example of that this summer when the league shut down in March and then they started the playoffs in August and September and the guys jumped in and the quality of hockey was at a high level,’’ Francis said.
He hopes the additional work with Roberts can be a difference-maker in jump-starting the coming expansion roster. Roberts preaches a “fuel, train and recover” mantra that places as much emphasis on food and hydration athletes put into their bodies as their physical performance.
“A lot of that success is built around how you live your life,” Roberts said.
Roberts helped the Pittsburgh Penguins open their new training facility and the Vegas Golden Knights during their expansion launch, working mainly with prospects from both clubs.
He’ll work more with NHL players this latest expansion go-round; attending the Kraken’s development camp, inaugural training camp and select road trips, while performing any other work the team deems necessary. Roberts expects to fly in shortly to assist with the new training facility.
Among things he’ll look for: Making sure gym areas aren’t overcrowded with weights so there’s plenty of room for hockey-related training exercises. Players will still have weights to build strength, but the focus will be on hockey-specific training.
“I would just say that the training has evolved,” Roberts said. “We’re seeing a lot more movement-based work now than when I played.”
That’s largely due to NHL rules changes. Where players once clutched and grabbed opponents to level out speed disparity, that’s largely been officiated out of the game — leaving speed and skill as the primary means of keeping up.
“My philosophy is, we’re building better athletes,” Roberts said. “If you come to me and you’re a good hockey player, but you don’t move that well, then we make you more efficient. We make you faster on the ground and then 99% of the time, that guy’s going to be faster on the ice.”