Gary Roberts is the Chuck Norris of nutrition.
For years now he’s been kicking fitness class and taking names of unhealthy foods to the point where the retired National Hockey League player has become the go-to guru for players wishing to take their conditioning to the next level.
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Tim Brent had always heard stories about Roberts’ legendary fitness regimen. But it wasn’t until 2007-08 when Brent was a teammate of Roberts in Pittsburgh that the young pro learned just how serious the veteran was about keeping his body a fine-tuned machine.
“He had the water the team used replaced with Fiji water because it was the most pH balanced,” Brent recalls. “I thought, ‘Wow, he’s hardcore.’ ”
While most people wouldn’t give a second thought to something as simple as water, Roberts has spent years researching nutrition and fitness. He is a firm believer in eating organic and whole foods and won’t touch anything with a “non-fat” label or any product with more than a half-dozen ingredients.
But just when you think Roberts has the food fortitude of a saint and is completely free of those guilty calorie-rich pleasures, along comes one sinful revelation.
“I love ice cream,” admits the 44-year-old, who enjoys Mapleton’s organic variety. “That is definitely my vice. I treat myself a little more often since my retirement than I did while I was playing – maybe two times a week. But I do enjoy my ice cream. That’s the truth.
“I am human.”
Roberts wasn’t always a poster boy for good health and conditioning. There are several stories of his fitness struggles as a junior star with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s and Guelph Platers before heading into his first pro camp. It wasn’t until he finally saw the light with Lorne Goldenberg, his Ottawa-based strength and conditioning coach, that he decided to get serious about preparing properly for the life of a professional athlete.
“I was the guy who was embarrassed in his first NHL training camp because I was considered out of shape,” says Roberts, who was drafted 12th overall by the Calgary Flames in 1984. “So, yes, I was like the rest of those junior kids that you see. I went through that process.”
A serious neck injury which forced Roberts to sit out the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season strengthened his resolve to research the best information in fitness and nutrition.
“Unfortunately a lot of us don’t tap into those markets until we’ve had an injury and that’s how I got involved,” says Roberts, who came back from that injury to finish with 22 NHL seasons. “It was after injury after injury when I said, ‘OK, I’ve got to change something here.’ ”
Now Roberts has decided to help share that first-hand knowledge with minor hockey players through www.allstate.all-canadians.com, a joint venture between insurance company Allstate and the NHLPA to help mentor Canadian kids. The website features blogs from current NHL stars, sports psychologists and trainers, like Roberts and Goldenberg, on everything from building confidence to off-season training to how to run a good power play.
As the website grows, Roberts says it will feature healthy recipes for families to prepare along with nutritional tips on what kids should be eating both pre- and post-game along with safe exercises for youngsters.
He says making healthy choices for kids doesn’t have to be that difficult – something as easy as packing a small carton of chocolate milk and a banana can provide players with the essentials to recover after a game or workout before a proper meal.
“It doesn’t take lots, maybe an extra 10 or 15 minutes in your day to prepare some healthy snacks and meals to take with you on the road when you’re travelling or on a bus to a hockey game,” says Roberts, who played in the NHL with Calgary, Toronto, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida and Pittsburgh.
“There are lots of other options than fast food, because we all know to be an athlete, that’s not going to cut it.”
In addition, he’ll also be helping 40 top bantam-aged players during the program’s inaugural camp in August at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont.
Roberts has already been helping the next generation of stars with a summer program, personally supervising the nutrition and fitness programs of 19 NHL and junior stars. Steven Stamkos, the NHL’s current leading scorer and Tampa Bay Lightning sniper, Carolina Hurricanes rookie Jeff Skinner and Dallas Stars winger James Neal are among Roberts’ “students.” He had organic meals delivered to his Uxbridge, Ont., home four days a week for the players so they could have a healthy, three-course meal after every workout, which Roberts says was the most important meal of their day.
“That’s what I heard all summer, ‘What’s that green stuff on my sandwich?’” says the North York, Ont., native of the food he was serving. “It was fun for me because it was a real educational process for these guys.”
Kingston Frontenacs star Ethan Werek says taking part in Roberts’ program was the best thing he’s done, not only for his hockey but for his health.
“It made me a much more educated person,” says the 19-year-old, who cut his body fat by five percent. “My body, every day, felt 100 times better just because of how I was eating and how I was treating it and working out. It was definitely the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Spending the summer on the “Gary Diet” was difficult, especially for a teenager hanging out with friends. Werek remembers golfing with his buddies; instead of succumbing to peer pressure and going for hamburgers, he had to make the healthy choice.
“I’d be bringing a quinoa salad, banana and fruits with my protein shake and all my buddies would be looking at me,” says Werek with a laugh. “They’re all getting beers; I’m having my protein shake. Gary changed a lot of my lifestyle.”
Roberts says he would get texts from players seeking his advice on what to eat when fending for themselves at a restaurant or supermarket.
Alas, old habits aren’t so easily broken. Two weeks into the program Werek went out for ice cream and, a glutton for punishment, made the mistake of telling Roberts.
“He looked at me like I had three heads and he was going to knock me out,” says Werek. “After I saw that look, I didn’t cheat at all.”
That look was what his charges dubbed "Scary Gary" and when they saw it they knew there was no fooling around when it came to sticking to Roberts’ plan.
“It’s hardcore, absolutely,” says Roberts. “But these are top junior hockey players that want a life in the National Hockey League. So there are different levels of ‘Scary Gary’ for different ages. Like I say, ‘Part-time athlete, part-time results,’ so if you want to be an NHL player these days and be the best you can be, yes, you don’t have to be 100 percent of a psychopath. But you better be 75 percent or you won’t make it, No. 1, and you won’t stay there, No. 2.
“It is a lifestyle choice. The nutrition part of it is nothing more than that. If you choose to live and eat healthy, you’ll get better results.”
Sunaya Sapurji is the junior hockey editor at Yahoo! Sports. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org