One big step back for Leafs

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

You can't replace a Gary Roberts.

There isn't anyone to take his spot, anyone in the market who does what he does, lives as he lives. His kind comes around only so often in a sporting lifetime, and only if you're truly fortunate.

He's a Pied Piper of hockey, a captain without a C. And all the kids in the dressing room -- and yes, many of the adults, too -- lined up to be just like him.

They lifted their weights. They gave up their junk food. They drank their protein shakes. "I don't know what's in them," Alexander Mogilny once said, "All I know is I don't want to be 40 years old and be growing a second head."

One quick story about how much Roberts was admired in the Maple Leafs dressing room: One playoff night, with the Leafs in overtime, Roberts needed his inhaler between periods to deal with his asthma. Some teammates, not knowing what the inhaler was, but knowing Roberts was using it, asked if they could indulge as well.

No matter what he did, no matter where he went, his teammates were certain to follow.

And so on the first day of true free agency, Roberts, who will turn 40 this season, a senior by hockey standards, led once again, having gone where all good Canadian seniors go: He will winter in Florida.

"That way," he joked last night, "I won't have too far to go to retire."

But he now leaves Toronto with emotions mixed and regrets that run deep. He didn't want to go. The new hockey economics -- and some strange negotiating ploys by the Leafs -- meant he had to.

"I absolutely loved playing here," Roberts said in a one-on-one interview last night. "It has been a tough day for me. I waited right up until noon hoping (the Leafs would make a two-year offer).

"There's no one to blame in any of this. I came here for the right reasons and I'm leaving for the right reasons. I have nothing to complain about in my time in Toronto.

"Eventually, the Leafs had to get younger. For them, I guess a two-year contract wasn't an option."

Getting younger is a noble goal but at what price? Getting younger is only meaningful if getting better is part of the package.

This morning, it looks as though the Maple Leafs are writing off the coming season, with much to buy and little to spend and a dressing room now devoid of its two most important people.

Roberts, who was second on the Leafs in goal scoring when last the team actually played games, has left and so has his childhood pal, Joe Nieuwendyk, who took a pay cut to come to Toronto, led the team in playoff goal scoring and smarts, and was rewarded by being shown the door.

If John Ferguson has a plan for the team -- other than to bottom out, replace Pat Quinn with Paul Maurice, and attack free agency a year from now -- it's certainly not evident. The Leafs are weak up front, weak on defence, old in goal: Yet they found a place for Nik Antropov, scoreless in 13 playoff games, but not for Nieuwendyk who scored six times.

They have a dressing room with a captain who has all but abdicated his role and a room full of too many outsiders. And now there have to be questions about Ed Belfour, who was comfortable in an environment surrounded by quality leadership, but never comfortable with uncertainty.

By noon yesterday, the uncertainty took a turn in Gary Roberts' life. Right to the last minute, he was hoping a deal could get done with the Leafs. He is building a home in Uxbridge, has a baby boy on the way, came here to end his career, not to move elsewhere. But by 12:15 p.m., that hope had disappeared. The two-year-offer from Florida was too good for he and Nieuwendyk to turn down.

MONEY WELL SPENT

The Panthers spent their money wisely, buying the best tutors possible for the Florida kids in desperate need of being shown the way.

Hoping that Roberts can carry the Panthers, the way he almost carried the Leafs to a Stanley Cup final.

"We could have won the Cup that year," Roberts said of the 2002 playoff season. "I believe we had the team to do it. We just ran out of bodies. We weren't healthy enough to finish it. Nothing would have been better than winning a Cup in Toronto.

"That was my dream."


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