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Roberts long-awaited return iminent

Friday, 14.02.2003 / 12:00 AM / News
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Roberts long-awaited return iminent
(CP) - All indications are that Gary Roberts will make his season debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators, but a final decision won't be made until after a game-day meeting with GM-coach Pat Quinn.

Roberts practised Friday with Mats Sundin and Alexander Mogilny as linemates.

"I'm looking foward to it," he said afterwards. "I'm not sure what the situation is going to be for lines. I'm just trying to focus in on getting myself ready."

Roberts, 37, got medical clearance Wednesday to play following his rehabilitation from surgeries on both shoulders last summer.

"It's been a long winter," he said. "I think I've prepared very well and now it's up to me to go out and do the job.

The Leafs should welcome a little of Roberts' grit.
GettyImages/NHLI
"At this point, I'm not 100 per cent sure I am playing. Pat and I haven't had a chance to talk."

But Quinn has talked with agent Rick Curran about a contract extension for Roberts, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"We're talking to him and we'll try to make something happen," said Quinn.

Roberts made it clear his preference is to remain in Toronto.

"I was excited about the way things went last year and I'm looking forward to contributing that way again," he said. "Hopefully, down the road, I will be taken care of."

In the meantime, there is the big Saturday morning decision to make.

"We haven't really confirmed Gary is coming in," said Quinn. "We still have to have a further conversation.

"If he's mentally ready, we'll put him in. We're going to talk and see just where he is."

Roberts took some ribbing from teammates when they saw he'd been handed a navy blue sweater to skate on the top line in practice.

"Some of the guys were saying, `Oh, here we go, right back on the top line.' You always get that razzing from your teammates," said Roberts. "But there's been lots of times I've played with Mats in practice and at game time (line combinations are different).

"At this point, that's the least of my worries, worrying about who I'm going to play with. My game is not going to change whether I'm out there with Mats or Alyn (McCauley) or Robert (Reichel) or whomever my centre might be. My game is going to be a pretty simple game for a while.

"The key is not to get too excited. You just want to try and be focused and try to realize what to do to have success, and that's keeping it simple. No matter who I'm playing with, I don't think you're going to see too many end-to-end rushes from me. I'm just going to try and play my game, get the puck to my linemates, and hopefully create some opportunities from turnovers.

"The key is not to get out there and run around and think you're going to accomplish everything in one night. I haven't played for nine months and, although I think I'm very prepared, it's going to take me a few games to get readjusted.

"I'm just excited to be given the opportunity to come back and play in the NHL again."

Roberts celebrates a goal in last year's playoff drive.
Ezra Shaw/GettyImages/ NHLI
Roberts retired for 18 months after a serious neck injury in 1996.

Through all his physical setbacks, he's never been tempted to tone down his physical style of play. He's yet to throw a meaningful hit in practice.

"A little playing around with Tie (Domi) and Wade Belak but nothing serious," he said of rough stuff he's delved in his rehab to date. "Our guys have played over 50 games this year and the last thing they need is me out there trying to hit them in practice.

"For me, the real test is going to be playing the games. I'm going to need to be real smart, keep my shifts short, and realize I haven't played all season.

"I think I've prepared well but, at the same time, I haven't taken any contact so the test will be digging in the corners, fighting for loose pucks, and that kind of stuff is going to be the challenge."

The shoulders "feel better than they ever have."

"But I haven't been hit for nine months," he added. "Anybody would feel better if they haven't taken contact for nine months.

"I'm just going to try not to think too much about it and realize that I'm going to be excited to play. Even at 36, I still get excited about putting my skates on and going out there to practice or play.

"As long as I'm still enjoying it and realizing that as you get older it takes a little more work in rehab to play the game. It's not just like it used to be - putting your skates on and playing hockey. There's a little more work involved."

He's high on the Leafs' chances.

"I think we've got a great opportunity. The East is wide open.

"If Ed Belfour continues to do what he's done for us, I don't see any reason why we can't be right there at the end."

His talk with Quinn will centre on "where I fit in and what he's looking from me to do out there."

"No matter how long you've played you're ways looking to hear what the coach has to say as far as how he feels and how he's going to use me. We need to talk about that kind of stuff so he knows that, if I'm coming back to play, I'm ready to play."
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