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Roberts inspired by Badger Bob

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Badger" Bob Johnson has been gone for more than 15 years, but his presence looms over the Penguins' first-round playoff series with the Ottawa Senators.

Twenty-three years ago, Johnson's calculated shaming of an 18-year-old rookie hotshot -- in front of the whole team -- helped to forge one of the steeliest wills the game has ever seen.

"It was a real hit to my confidence," says Penguins winger Gary Roberts, now 40. "But when I look back on it, it's probably why I am the way I am today."

The way Roberts is -- ferocious, proud and playoff-tested -- is the reason Penguins general manager Ray Shero gave up prospect Noah Welch to get him. The deal was criticized in some circles, but nobody's complaining now.

Strike that. They're complaining in Ottawa, where everybody wanted the Senators to snag Roberts from the Florida Panthers at the deadline. Roberts wanted that, too. He listed Ottawa and Toronto as the teams for which he would waive his no-trade clause, but Senators GM John Muckler wasn't willing to pay the price.

You wonder if Muckler will regret that. Could it be that Roberts' menacing presence is just what the Senators are missing -- what they've always been missing?

Flash back to the summer of 1984. Roberts was on top of the world, having been selected 12th overall by the Calgary Flames, 11 picks after the Penguins took Mario Lemieux.

Roberts spent his summer playing lacrosse, wrongly figuring it would have him in prime condition for his first NHL camp. The Flames were ahead of the curve in conditioning because of Badger Bob's innovative methods.

One day early in camp, Johnson stunned Roberts by parading him in front of the veteran team as an example of what a non-committed hockey player looks like.

"He called me out, basically embarrassed me in front of everybody," Roberts recalled. "At the time, I obviously wasn't a big fan, but as I matured and learned, I realized he was right."

Back in junior for the next two years, Roberts became something of a fitness freak. Johnson's hurtful words had prompted him to carry a chin-up bar wherever he went. You can imagine the curious reactions when he'd put the thing up in the doorway of his hotel room.

Roberts helped the Flames win the Stanley Cup in 1989, by which time Johnson had been replaced by Terry Crisp.

On top of the world again, Roberts, 23, had no clue his career would crumble seven years later because of nerve and disc damage in his neck. All those violent hits exacted a terrible toll.

He retired in 1996, after two surgeries, but worked his way back under the guidance of noted Calgary-based strength coach Charles Poliquin.

After sitting out the 1996-97 season, Roberts returned, first with the Carolina Hurricanes, then the Leafs. The nasty scar on his neck only added to his legend, as he sparked the Leafs on some hearty playoff runs.

It took Lemieux, Mark Recchi and Shero to coax Roberts into coming to Pittsburgh, where the Penguins' dressing room is adorned with Badger Bob's famous saying, "It's a Great Day for Hockey."

"First thing I saw when I walked in," Roberts said.

Though he didn't get to share Calgary's championship with Johnson, Roberts received a much greater gift -- closure. It came in the weeks before Johnson's death from brain cancer, in a locker room in Denver in the fall of 1991.

The Flames were there to play an exhibition game. Johnson, who had coached the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup months earlier, sat in a wheelchair as the entire Calgary team greeted him one-by-one.

Roberts wells up as he recalls his final turn with Badger Bob.

"I remember him grabbing my hand and saying, 'Hey, Roberts, I knew you'd make it.'

"I realized, at that moment, that he really cared."

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