Leafs' loss is Pens' gain

MIKE ZEISBERGER

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

It didn't take long for Sidney Crosby to notice the influence of fitness fanatic Gary Roberts in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room.

There was the sound of the blender wailing through the hallways, signifying that yet another jug of Roberts' famous protein shakes was ready for guzzling.

There was the sight of a 40-year-old man, beads of sweat trickling down his war-scarred face, feverishly pumping iron, leaving many of his baby-faced teammates tired just watching him.

There was even the feeling that the nutrition-conscious Roberts was monitoring his fellow Penguins during team meals, perhaps making sure that no one was feasting on greasy french fries swimming in gooey gravy.

"He's so impressive, both on the ice and off," Crosby said yesterday. "You couldn't have a better guy around. He's such a class act.

"You are 19 years old, he's 40, and he spends more time in the weight room than you do. Even when guys eat their meals, they watch what they eat around him."

Upon being informed of Crosby's comments, Maple Leafs coach Paul Maurice enjoyed a chuckle.

"I think he sneaks the odd chicken wing in to his teammates," Maurice said, tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Joking aside, both Maurice and Leafs general manager John Ferguson are aware of what Roberts brings to the table. And we're not referring to items found on a Swiss Chalet menu, either.

That's why they made such a concerted effort to get him at the trade deadline.

Ferguson witnessed first-hand what a force he could be during the 2003-04 season, Roberts' final campaign as a Leaf. Maurice was the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997 when Roberts came back after missing the previous season with a career-threatening neck injury.

"Gary had a major impact on the fitness level of our team," Maurice said. "A lot of guys followed his lead."

It has been well documented that the Toronto hierarchy was allegedly livid behind closed doors when they could not swing a deal for Roberts last month.

Roberts had asked to be shipped only to Toronto or Ottawa, but Florida Panthers general manager Jacques Martin just could not make it happen. Of course, it has been suggested that maybe he didn't want to. Ottawa, after all, was the team that had fired him as head coach while the Leafs had done the same to Pat Quinn, Martin's colleague with the Canadian Olympic team in 2002 and '06.

Florida's original asking price for Roberts was either Alex Steen or Matt Stajan. When the Leafs balked, the Panthers demanded the Leafs' first-round pick in '07.

The Leafs responded by offering a second-round pick, fourth-round pick and a prospect, believed to be either Brendan Bell or Staffan Kronwall. No dice.

To this day, the Leafs believe their package was better than the one from Pittsburgh that sent prospect Noah Welch to Florida for Roberts. Welch, by the way, reportedly was concussed at the time of the trade and just recently returned to action in the minors.

Faced with the dilemma of waiving his no-trade clause and accepting the deal to Pittsburgh, Roberts called veteran forward Mark Recchi for some insight.

"I told him these kids were fun to be around," Recchi said. "It was an easy thing to say because they are."

Roberts bought the sales pitch and has paid instant dividends. He has chalked up 10 points as a Pen, leading Pittsburgh to an 11-3-1 record with him in the lineup.

Earlier this week, Roberts was considered doubtful for tonight's huge tilt with the Leafs after being clunked in the knee by a Crosby shot, causing him to miss the Penguins' 4-2 win in Boston Thursday. But those around the team now say they would not be surprised to see Roberts play against his former team this evening, with a decision likely to be made after the morning skate.

"It's always emotional for me to go back and play in Toronto, with the way they treated me," Roberts told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I have such fond memories."

Sid the Kid can hear that blender grinding already.


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