It has been one tough year for Gary Roberts

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

If Gary Roberts was supposed to make a storybook return to the Air Canada Centre Monday, someone certainly made a cruel alteration to the script.

With his Florida Panthers coming in to face the Maple Leafs on Halloween night, life has served him up more tricks than treats of late.

Having recently moved into a new home in Parkland, Fla., with his pregnant fiance, Roberts, who once played for a team called the Hurricanes, discovered just how damaging the wrath of a real hurricane can be.

With the fierce rains and howling winds of Hurricane Wilma ripping and snapping trees like they were twigs earlier this week, the storm cut a swath through Roberts' neighbourhood, leaving it a chaotic mess.

"My fiance called and said, 'You might as well prepare yourself because the landscaping is gone,' "said Roberts, who was in Pittsburgh with his teammates preparing for a game against the Penguins when Wilma hit. "We've got palm trees in the spa, palm trees through the fence, (trees) in the pond behind the house.

"At least the house is fine and she is fine."

That bit of good news has allowed him to pause for reflection about meeting the Maple Leafs.

"I have nothing to prove to the Toronto Maple Leafs," he said. "They were good to me while I was there. I enjoyed my time in Toronto. I have a lot of good friends on the team. So it's going to be a tough game for me to play emotionally."

Not much has struck fear into the heart of one of the NHL's grittiest competitors over the years. Wilma certainly did.

"Being Canadian, we've been through a lot of bad storms --snowstorms -- but this one scared us for sure," he said.

Welcome to the trials and tribulations of Gary Roberts here in 2005.

There was the concern he harboured for his fiance, who is scheduled to give birth in less than two months.

There is the nagging groin injury that plagued him through the early part of the season.

There is the back injury that continues to hobble Joe Nieuwendyk, his childhood pal and Panthers teammate who will not accompany the team to Toronto for the game.

And yet, health permitting, Roberts will somehow put all these distractions aside for three hours and concentrate on beating the Leafs.

"I'm excited to see my daughter (Jordan), who goes to private school there. I'm excited to see my family, mom and dad, brother and sister," he said.

Roberts continues to keep in touch with the likes of Tie Domi, Bryan McCabe and the injured Mats Sundin.

"Obviously I'm concerned about Mats' situation. He's a real good friend, a great captain, and I really enjoyed playing with him while I was in Toronto. So I've kept up on his (condition), hoping he stays healthy."

As for his own health, Roberts, a fitness fanatic, hopes the worst is behind him.

"You feel like you've prepared to play, you've done your homework, and all of a sudden I've got a groin pull in the first game and I'm kind of fighting it," he said. "But it's a long year, I'm healthy now, looking to get my legs back under me in the next few games, and get contributing a little more than I have."

So what does he expect the reaction will be at The Hanger when he steps on to the ice Monday night?

"Hopefully it's a nice one, but you never know in Toronto," said Roberts, still seeking his first point of the season. "But like I said, the fans have been really good to me and so has the city, so hopefully there are not too many boobirds out there."

NIEUWY NEWS

The roof of their arena was damaged by Wilma.

Their practice rink has no ice because of the power outage in south Florida earlier this week.

With no other options, the Panthers have temporarily moved operations to the Orlando area, where Nieuwendyk arrived earlier this week to begin off-ice training.

As of yesterday, however, he had yet to start skating again .

"I know he's trying to get healthy and get back out there," Roberts said. "He's not going to make the trip, but like I said, it's going to be a tough game to play in.

"As nice as it's going to be to be there, it's going to be an emotional game. So for Joe, hopefully he's just worrying about getting himself healthy and getting back out there."

The Panthers do not visit the Air Canada Centre again until April 11.

HITCH WON'T BITCH

Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock has as many issues with the NHL's new rules as Maple Leafs bench boss Pat Quinn.

But after seeing the ornery Irishman fined by the league this week, Hitch refuses to bitch. Even if he wants to.

"I'm not commenting on the officials anymore," said Hitchcock, normally one of the more outspoken characters in hockey. "Too many guys are a little lighter in their wallets these days."

ICE CHIPS

This makes no sense. Tampa Bay Lightning star Brad Richards wears a visor in games, but not in practice. So, of course, last week during a workout he was hit with a puck just above the right eye and ended up with 12 stitches ... How tough is it to play for Wayne Gretzky out in Phoenix? Jeff Taffe, who is engaged to one of Gretzky's nieces, was traded to the New York Rangers by the Coyotes last week ... The Carolina Hurricanes have been taking some heat from the local media for retiring the jersey of Ron Francis on Jan. 29 against the Atlanta Thrashers because it's a non-televised game. As a result, the critics claim, no highlights of the ceremony will make ESPN.


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